Upon Reflection: Journalism’s real ‘fake news’ also reflects its accountability
Note: This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller.
On Sept. 28, 1980, during the height of the drug epidemic in the nation’s capital, The Washington Post published a heart-rending profile of “Jimmy,” an 8-year-old heroin addict. It caused a national sensation.
Police and social workers launched a massive search for the boy, whose identity the paper refused to disclose. The following April, the reporter, Janet Cooke, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor, for feature writing.
But her story was a lie. The boy was never found, and Cooke ultimately acknowledged that she had invented him. The Pulitzer committee withdrew the award — for the first time in the history of the prizes — and the Post published a voluminous report on its failure to catch the fabrication. Cooke resigned; her promising journalism career abruptly ended.
In the four subsequent decades, there have been other high-profile cases where journalists working for reputable news organizations made things up. They include fabulists whose names are synonymous with the cardinal sin of their craft — Stephen Glass (PDF) of The New Republic, Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today. More recently, NBC News’ Brian Williams was found to have embellished accounts of his derring-do as a reporter.
The consequences of these self-inflicted wounds were enormous — not just for the perpetrators, but also for their news organizations. But the greatest damage was to the public’s trust in journalism. Cooke’s case, less than a decade after the Post’s triumphant Watergate reporting, first weakened that bond. The transgressions of Glass, Blair, Kelley and Williams further eroded it.
Nonetheless, as counterintuitive as it might sound, these iconic cases can, in fact, be viewed as a reason to trust journalism.
For one thing, there have been relatively few such scandals in the four decades since “Jimmy’s World” was published. For another, the news organizations took responsibility, acknowledged the damage, and published exhaustive investigations into how these lapses happened. Some of these breaches led to systemic institutional changes. And Cooke, Glass, Blair and Kelley have not worked in journalism again (we’ll return to Williams below).
Before and during his time as president, Donald Trump has insisted that critical news coverage is “fake news” and accused those who cover him of making things up, even as he has misled the public on a variety of topics — from silly ones (the size of the crowd at his inauguration) to matters with implications for public health (the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic) and for democracy itself (the outcome of last month’s presidential election).
Yes, there have been rare ethical lapses; I note a few below. But in contrast to the many purposely deceptive websites and some viral user-generated content on social media platforms — produced with no rigor, standards, accountability or transparency — quality journalists and news outlets do not make things up. Period.
To be sure, journalism is imperfect by its nature. Journalists make mistakes for a variety of reasons: the rush of deadlines, competitive pressure, sources who mislead or outright lie, honest errors. The truth often takes time to emerge. There is a reason that journalism is called “the first rough draft of history.”
Beyond the fabulists, there have been other high-profile, and even more damaging, cases, where news organizations retracted major stories that involved serious lapses in the vetting of sources and documents or deeply flawed reporting and editing. Glaring examples include CNN’s 1998 report on Operation Tailwind, charging that the U.S. military had used sarin, a deadly nerve gas, against American defectors during the Vietnam War, and a 2014 piece in Rolling Stone detailing an alleged rape at the University of Virginia.
In 2004, The New York Times produced a post-mortem of its Iraq reporting that was highly critical of its own credulous accounts of the existence of weapons of mass destruction — weapons that failed to materialize in Iraq and helped lead the U.S. into a prolonged and costly war. That same year, CBS News acknowledged that it was “a mistake” to have based a report about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard on memos that it could not prove were authentic.
But here, too, internal inquiries followed, and careers — including those of prominent correspondents and senior news executives — were dashed or diminished.
In addition, many news organizations, including digital-only outlets like Vox and Axios, routinely publish corrections of factual errors, down to the misspelling of a name or an erroneous date. Some have ombudsman or a readers’ representative who responds to issues of accuracy and ethics. Many journalism organizations also have ethics codes (here, for example, is the Society of Professional Journalists’). This reflects the fact that reputable news organizations have standards; when those standards are violated, corrections and consequences follow — or at least they should.
You might ask yourself this question about any source of information that you trust: When was the last time it issued a correction?
I know something about this subject after 29 years as a newspaper reporter, most of them spent in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. I participated in the meticulous reporting, editing and vetting process that my colleagues and I brought to our work. This included high-stakes investigations involving the political campaigns and administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the U.S. Marine Corps and U-Haul. I sweated every word and every fact right up until the presses ran. My handful of corrections, most of them minor, sting to this day.
Admittedly, not all journalism transgressions — and transgressors — are created or treated equally.
Brian Williams shared false accounts of his reporting — both on the air and in interviews on late-night talk shows — when he was one of the most trusted names in journalism as the anchor of the NBC Nightly News. When these fabrications were disclosed in 2015, he was suspended for six months without pay. He returned to the air in September 2015 as a breaking news anchor on MSNBC; a year later, he was named the host of a newly created late-night news wrap-up on the cable network, The 11th Hour with Brian Williams — a position he still holds.
Janet Cooke, the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer (before she lost it), is about to make a comeback of sorts as well: A Netflix film based on her story is in the works.
Jayson Blair, whose serial deceptions at The New York Times exposed shortcomings in internal safeguards at the paper and helped lead to the resignation of its two top editors in 2003, has had no such revival. “I still love journalism. I miss it,” he told students at Duke University in 2016. But, he added, “it just doesn’t work without the trust.”