Fictional journalismThe big story in The NYT today is all about itself. Specifically, its a front-page story that spills over to fill four -- yes, four -- full pages about the paper's embarrassment over printing phony journalism by young Jayson Blair. For four years! So maybe that was necessary -- one full page per year of embarrassment, not counting some 10 column inches on the front page.
Blair's stuff wasn't entirely invented. He's obviously a very clever guy and a talented writer. He just didn't trouble to go to the places he filed from (the Times takes its dateline policy religiously, as they tell you here) -- filing from Palestine, West Virginia, for example, when he was really in a pizza parlor in Brooklyn, and reporting verbatim interviews he never conducted at all, or reporting as f2f interviews he had done by phone, and filling in what he hadn't gone to observe by lifting info from photos on the 'net and from other reporters' stories in less famous newspapers. What next for Jayson, now that he's been outed and barred from his beloved Times newsroom? Well, maybe he'll go the way of Stephen Glass, who was fired five years ago from The New Republic for doing the same kind of thing. (This too is from today's NYT, in the Week In Review section.) He "fabricated" (love that word) "at least part of 27 articles." And now? He's disguised the story of this adventure as a novel and sold it to Simon & Schuster for $100,000 advance. Still, the New Republic is not the hallowed New York Times, and a mere 27 fibs is small potatoes next to Blair's career. You got to admire the guy, Blair, I mean, not Glass. Even my sometime collaborator Mr. Glib could have done what Glass did; in fact, I suspect Hyacinth Glib did do it, just using Glass as a front. (For more on HG, click here.) What Blair did was much more complex, involving cellphone and laptop manipulations as well as a lot of hard work looking up stuff to back up stories when he was challenged. He must have put as much energy into it as if he actually had made those trips and interviewed those people.
I don't think even Edgar Allen Poe himself could have pulled off a more complete and sustained hoax. Mainly because Poe didn't have the patience. That he had the talent is clear from one of my favorite newspaper hoaxes of all time, headlined Astounding News by Express, via Norfolk! - The Atlantic crossed in Three Days!, published in the New York Sun in 1835. But Poe wasn't trying to make his career this way -- he was having a great joke (filled with clues to the alert reader, including that the balloon is said to have lifted off from Rotterdam on April 1) and exploring what he thought were real scientific possibilities. Poor Poe, wasting his talents on poetry, mysteries and booze. He could have made a great charlatan.