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Q: With all the fact-checking resources we have now, would it still be possible to do what Stephen Glass did?

Stephen Glass in the late 1990s

A:

Sure, if all we’re talking about is making stuff up. As we all know, fake news abounds. But Glass was writing for some of the most prominent magazines in the country, including The New Republic, Harper’s, and Rolling Stone. Despite Rolling Stone’s “Rape on Campus” debacle, it and the others on that list, have long had a rigorous fact-checking system in place to safeguard against printing falsehoods of any kind, let alone entirely made-up stories.

But those magazines have their blind spots, and those blind spots have been exposed by some very high-profile cases in the past 20 years. Sadly, they suggest the problem may be even more systemic than just a few bad apples sneaking into the mix.

That Glass was able to get away with fabricating sources and sometimes entire articles for years was likely a product of two things: 1) His ability to stay just ahead of the fact-checkers with what seemed like proof of the companies and people he wrote about (fake websites, phone numbers, etc.), and 2) his extraordinary talents as a young man. The former is a lot harder to fake now than it was 20 years ago obviously, but the latter still creates a potential blindspot at even the most serious news outlets.

Credit: Gothamist.com

There have been several cases of young journalists getting away with fabrication, lying, and other forms of journalistic malpractice precisely because some people like to believe in the bright young light, the prodigy writer, the promising youthful talent. 

Glass was exposed as a fraud in 1998. Since then, Jayson Blair was able to publish plagiarized articles and false datelines (claiming to be on location when he was really at home in Brooklyn) in the New York Times before he was exposed in 2003. In 2012, New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer fabricated quotes by Bob Dylan in his book about creativity, Imagine, and even plagiarized his own writings (taking content from previously written articles and repurposing it for newer projects). In 2014, Jessica Pressler wrote a piece for New York magazine about a 17-year-old “millionaire” stock trader who’d gotten rich before graduating from high school. He even presented bank statements to prove his wealth. The problem is, the statements were falsified, and both she and the fact-checking department were duped.

“There is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world.” She continued: “When young people display remarkable intelligence or creativity, we are instantly enamored. We want or need geniuses to show us the power and potential of the human mind and we’re so eager to find new people to bestow this title upon that the term and the concept have become quite diluted.”

Roxane Gay

It may be that everyone just wanted to believe in these people so much that they didn’t scrutinize them closely enough.

As Roxane Gay wrote in 2012, after Lehrer was exposed: “There is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world.” She continued: “When young people display remarkable intelligence or creativity, we are instantly enamored. We want or need geniuses to show us the power and potential of the human mind and we’re so eager to find new people to bestow this title upon that the term and the concept have become quite diluted.”

Ironically, Gay sees the media as partly to blame. She observed in the same piece that on NPR Lehrer was described as a “superstar science writer.” In Tablet, as a “celebrated journalist.” In the Boston Globe, as a “rising star.” In the Chicago Tribune, as a “seemingly prodigious young writer.” And in the Atlantic: a “wunderkind writer.”

Gay concluded her piece, in part, by arguing that with Lehrer (and surely this would extend to Glass as well) there may also have been a degree of racism and sexism at play. “Jonah Lehrer is part of a system that allows magazines, year after to year, to publish men, and white men in particular, significantly more than women or people of color,” she wrote. The implicit bias present in the entire editorial apparatus, in other words, may have allowed Lehrer to escape scrutiny.

Unlike Glass and Lehrer, Jayson Blair is black, but like those other journalists, he also displayed prodigious talent as a young writer. And while Jessica Pressler did not deliberately deceive her readers, her own deception may have been similar: She may have been “instantly enamored” by the young genius day trader in her midst.

But let the record show, there is also a reason that only a few names come up in a discussion like this. As systemic as the problem might be, cases like these are still very much the exception. Far more often than not, the system still works.