Don't reward deceitful writers
USA Today, March 24, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

When I nearly had finished writing a book in January 1996, I spent a day in the public library of Schenectady, N.Y., keeping faith with my profession. I took a sequence of trains to the city, six hours from my home, to try to verify one last anecdote before committing the manuscript to print.

A political consultant named Tim Carey, about whose family I was writing in a book on political realignment in America, had told me of the transforming day in 1974 when he heard Ronald Reagan speak at the General Electric headquarters in Schenectady.

I had interviewed Carey for probably 30 or 40 hours during my book research, and his memory had proved remarkably accurate on scores of events. But I had not yet been able to find a newspaper account of Reagan's 1974 appearance in Schenectady.

I had searched through Reagan's official travel schedule, to no avail, for any indication that he visited the city that year.

I had interviewed numerous GE employees, none of whom had a concrete recollection of the address Carey recalled.

So I decided to go to Schenectady to read every issue of the employee newsletter for the entire decade of the 1970s.

I never did find confirmation of Carey's remembrance, and I never added the paragraphs about it to my book, The Inheritance. Of course, I guess I simply could have faked it. If no one could prove that Reagan gave a speech at GE in 1974, then who would take the trouble to disprove it?

I engage in this narcissistic exercise by way of saying that I take the disclosure of plagiarism and fabrication by former USA TODAY correspondent Jack Kelley as personally as possible. He has desecrated my profession and given every reader cause to doubt all I write. He has torn down the scaffolding of trust--from reporter to editor, from publication to reader--that is the essence of journalism.

Were Kelley the sole aberration, I might feel less betrayed as a reader, writer and teacher of the next generation of journalists and non-fiction writers. But the exposure of his fraud in at least eight significant articles by a team of prominent outside journalists retained by the newspaper comes as only the latest example of journalistic ignominy. Such figures as Jayson Blair and Michael Finkel of The New York Times, Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass of The New Republic, Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith of The Boston Globe and author David Brock preceded Kelley in deceit and/or theft.

The belated search for systemic solutions to journalistic fraud is both necessary and futile. Kelley and his ilk abused a foundational trust. I think of them as my profession's version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley," the serial murderer in Patricia Highsmith's novel whose twisted gift is to rearrange his character to beguile his every victim.

Yes, the editors gulled by Kelley and others like him need to engage in their own due diligence, and they need to remember the aphorism, "If it's too good to be true, it probably is."

But Kelley, like Blair and Finkel and Glass, went to incredibly intricate lengths to trick fact-checkers and copy editors. Only a very peculiar person would lavish so much time on hiding the lie instead of reporting the fact. And no newsroom reforms will alter that mutated variety of human nature.

Recognizing that, all reputable journalists, leaders of news organizations and publishing executives must adopt a zero-tolerance policy: Break the trust once, and you never will write non-fiction again.

Alas, many of those who violated the public trust, and journalism's most basic ethics, have made the transgression into a great career move. Barnicle has an active TV and writing career. Blair's memoir, self-servingly titled Burning Down My Masters' House, is getting more review attention than literally hundreds of accomplished and serious books. Glass transformed infamy into a novel and became the subject of a feature film, Shattered Glass. Brock wrote an entire book, Blinded by the Right, acknowledging the falsehoods in his earlier book The Real Anita Hill. And we in the field of journalism have allowed this, turning our rapists into leading men.

Meanwhile, we all pay the price. I cannot recall how often a reader of one of my books has asked, "Are the names real?" What the person really means is, "Can I believe this book? Is it true?" There are enough reasons journalists instigate antagonism by doing their job correctly—covering tragedies, investigating public officials, treating sports stars as fallible mortals—that the last thing we ought to be doing is giving the public any more reasons to doubt us.

Only we journalists can restore our collective reputation, and the way to do so is to vow that when it comes to faking and stealing stories, one strike and you're out. You are banished from your professional community, your occupational family. Forever.

Kelley, Blair and the rest already have resigned or been fired from the newspapers and magazines they betrayed. But that is not sufficient punishment.

Journalists who fabricate never should be hired or contracted to write again. Their presence in any non-fiction publication damages me, and it damages all of my fellow journalists—including Kelley's hundreds of former colleagues at USA TODAY--who inconspicuously, obscurely and thanklessly play by the rules.

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