Every journalist in the country is talking about it and, because we're so damn obsessed with ourselves, you're going to be hearing a lot about it in the next few days.
I'm talking, of course, about the sad story of Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old rising star reporter at The New York Times who was forced to resign earlier this month when it turned out many of his front-page stories had been fabricated.
On Sunday, The Times did the unprecedented, devoting four full pages to an investigation and comprehensive analysis of all the mistakes and lies Blair told in print. It was a huge spread that sent shockwaves through the entire journalistic community. I mean, when the Times devotes 13,000 words and a team of reporters, you know it's a big story. Either that, or it's a really small story but it just happens to be written by someone Howell Raines wants to turn into a star.
What will no doubt become known as "The Blair Switch Project" is the greatest journalism scandal since the last time a journalist fabricated stories, became the toast of the town, crashed and burned in a public spectacle of second-guessing, disappeared for a few weeks and then emerged with a six-figure book contract.
That "last time," of course, was just a few years ago, when a similar ploy was pulled off by New Republic "reporter" Stephen Glass--the same guy who was on "60 Minutes" on Sunday saying how sorry he was (and, by the way, you can find how really how sorry he is if you buy his new book, "The Fabulist," which just happens to hit the stands this week).
Like Al Capone--who was ultimately caught for tax evasion rather than his murderous rampages--these deceitful reporters are most often caught through mundane means. In Blair's case, his cell phone records and expense reports placed him in New York when he was supposed to have been reporting from various places all over the country. (Rookie mistake! Fool, you're supposed to trade receipts with your friends from out-of-town newspapers! Don't they teach you anything in those internship programs?)
As someone who has never been hired by The New York Times in nearly a decade of trying, I can now see why I have consistently been declared unfit to work for the so-called Paper of Record. Other than a complete willingness to fabricate my expense reports--which I never did for this publication, I assure you, boss!--I clearly don't have what it takes. I lack both the chutzpah to ignore an editor's order to go out on a story and the imagination necessary to make up the details of interviews I never conducted while I was sitting in my Brooklyn apartment.
Call me crazy, but I just find it easier to actually go out on the stories and write down what people actually say. I even find it fun sometimes. Certainly more fun than sitting in my apartment on a cell phone.
But if The Times could make such a big mistake in allowing Blair to file increasingly suspect stories, certainly other, less vaunted, media outlets could have been far more guilty in the past. Buoyed by the exhaustive analysis of Blair's lies, the Times quietly unleashed the same investigative team to study some of the greatest moments in journalism. It turns out many of them were outright fabrications as well, The Times is expected to report later this week.
The Watergate Break-in: It never happened. Under pressure to get on the front page, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein cooked up the entire thing, right down to the fake source, "Deep Throat." Washington Post editors finally figured out the scam when Woodward submitted his expense forms and they showed frequent Blockbuster rentals of a popular Linda Lovelace film.
Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle": One of the greatest examples of muckraking journalism--which claimed that the body parts of food industry workers were sometimes severed and mixed right into beef hot dogs--was a lie. The body parts were never cooked into hot dogs, but removed and sold as "hot worker arms," a Hormel product that was hugely popular in the 1920s.
The Hindenburg Disaster: Herb Morrison--who covered the great airship's supposed demise--was not, in fact, in Lakehurst, N.J. that warm evening in May, 1937, but in a radio studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Known to be something of a drama queen around the office, Morrison did famously cry "Oh, the humanity!"--but not because he was so moved by the death of 36 Hindenburg passengers, but because an intern who brought him a ham sandwich had inexplicably forgotten to put mustard on it. The overdramatic Morrison had been warned by superiors to avoid such office outbursts, but history certainly benefited from the fact that the microphones happened to be open at the moment Morrison took that first mustard-free bite.
The Apollo 11 Mission: The Times's suspicion of fraud was raised when it reviewed its reporters' expenses: All the action was supposedly happening on the moon, yet dinner and entertainment expense reporters were consistently coming from Houston and Florida. The Times team finally decided to put this in the "unverifiable" folder because NASA continues to stonewall by not allowing a reporter from The Paper of Record to go to the moon for independent verification.
Bobby Thomson's Home Run: Russ Hodges famous call "the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" was a complete lie. According to the Times investigation, Thomson did not take Ralph Branca's 0-1 pitch deep into the left field seats as Hodges implied, but weakly grounded it back to Branca for an easy out. It was actually Willie Mays, the next batter, who hit the "Shot Heard 'Round the World," but Hodges was such a virulent racist that he refused to accept that Mays was the one who sent San Francisco to the 1951 World Series.
The Boston Globe's investigation into President George W. Bush's military service: The paper reported that President Bush was absent without leave from his National Guard unit for more than a year, but the Times investigation revealed that Bush was not, in fact, AWOL during that time. The truth is that his unit had merely sent him out for pizza and he had gotten lost. By the time he'd returned, all his buddies had been killed in Vietnam. The future president, grasping the solemnity of the moment, ate the pizza in their memory.