Here lately, if rain were caused by violations of journalistic ethics, the sky would be crying. Fareed Zakaria was suspended by Time on Aug. 10 after large swaths of someone else’s work were reused in his column wholesale without permission. Being a fabulist is labor intensive, but what Zakaria did is better described as simple laziness. The side-by-side between Zakaria’s “work” and the source material shows the only significant variable to be punctuation.
“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23 issue of The New Yorker. They are right,” Zakaria stated in The New York Times. “I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.”
The New Yorker itself experienced its own humiliation just days earlier, involving Jonah Lehrer, an author whose work I have previously enjoyed a great deal. I feel betrayed. I found his stories on WNYC’s Radiolab consistently fascinating. Now, I can’t trust any feelings I had in response to his work. That’s the thing about finding out the narrator is unreliable: you never know when you’re being overtly manipulated by falsehoods.
“[Lehrer] resigned from the New Yorker on [July 30] after admitting that he had fabricated quotes from
Bob Dylan in his nonfiction book ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works,’” wrote Carolyn Kellogg, of the Los Angeles Times. “The book has been recalled by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.”
Zakaria and Lehrer are just the latest. I’m not even going to mention Mike Daisey, Gerald Posner or Jayson Blair. The list goes on and on and on.
If you think about it, what the Internet has done for those who lie with words is the same as what DNA has done for solving previously unknowable mysteries. In the early ’90s, Deoxyribonucleic acid forensics became a vital part of pop culture due to several high profile cases. Kirk Bloodsworth, a name that couldn’t be more perfect for his situation, was the first death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence. Since then, dozens and dozens of others have been freed thanks to the technology.
Fast forward to 1998, some five years after Bloodsworth walked away from death. An up-and-coming young writer was caught in the act of committing first-degree fictional journalism. Stephen Glass, associate editor of The New Republic, was outed by Forbes magazine’s online arm, Forbes Digital Tool, as a serial liar and fabricator. Rumblings of his misdeeds preceded the fall, but what really did Glass in was the “official” website for a “company” named “Juct Micronics.” Glass completely made up this detail and pretty much every other bit of the story in question, “Hack Heaven.” But the fake website was laughable. One look at the amateurish members.aol.com address and it was all over.
After seeing the public shaming and virtual blacklisting of Glass, I don’t know how any journalist risks it. The Internet is to unscrupulous journalists as DNA testing is to criminals. Before DNA testing, it was way easier to either get away with murder or tragically pay for someone else’s crime. And as for journalists going through professional crises, I don’t mean to pile on, but Google exists. Criminals always leave something behind. Anyone with a data package on their cell phone could potentially root out journalistic misdeeds. I know two things for sure: some authors will lie no matter what and some of them will get caught. Expect the latter group to continue to grow.
• Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.