The problem of journalism in American proceeds from a simple but inescapable bind: journalists and editors are rarely, if ever, in a position to establish the truth about a story for themselves, and therefore almost entirely dependent on “sources,” who may be self-interested, falsifiers or even fictional characters. It is these “sources” that provide the version of reality that journalists report. Walter Lippmann pointed to the root of the problem a century ago when he made a distinction between “news” and truth. “The function of news is to signalize an event; the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and to make a picture of reality on which men can act.” Because news reporting and truth seeking ultimately have different purposes, Lippmann concluded that news should be expected to coincide unerringly with truth in only a few limited areas, such as the scores of sports events and the results of elections, where the results are definite and measurable. In more ambiguous areas, where the outcome may be in doubt or dispute, news reports could not be expected to exhaust or perhaps even indicate the truth of the matter. Lippmann held that if the public required a more truthful interpretation of the world it lived in, it would have to look elsewhere.
Today journalists would have difficulty accepting such a distinction between news and truth. Indeed, newsmen almost invariably depict themselves not merely as gatherers of the fragments of information but of hidden truths. Even though they remain dependent on “leaks” from sources whose motives are murky, their standing, as well as the circulation of their news organization, often requires them to ferret out scoops that depend on secret and otherwise unverifiable sources. The pressure to supply something extra in these stories has led time and again to journalistic invention.
Consider the invention of an epidemic of child heroin users in Washington D.C. On September 28, 1980, the Washington Post ran a sensational story about an eight-year old addict entitled "Jimmy's World." Janet Cooke, a staff reporter on the Post, described her extended interviews with “Jimmy” whose “thin, brown arms” had tracks of "needle marks” from repeated injections of heroin. Even after a massive police search for “Jimmy” proved unsuccessful, assistant managing editor Bob Woodward of Watergate fame submitted it for the Pulitzer Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize committee, unperturbed by the lack of verification, awarded Cooke the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing on April 13, 1981.
It turned out that the reason the police could not find “Jimmy,” the putative source for the story, was that he was imaginary. Cooke, as she admitted to her editors, invented “Jimmy” in response to pressure to produce an exclusive story for the Post. To his credit, Donald Graham, the publisher of the Post, admitted that the story was fraudulent and returned the award. Even so, Woodward said, “I think that the decision to nominate the story for a Pulitzer is of minimal consequence. I also think that it won is of little consequence. It is a brilliant story—fake and fraud that it is.” He added, in what might be termed the Woodward doctrine, “It would be absurd for me or any other editor to review the authenticity or accuracy of stories that are nominated for prizes.” (Cooke, who resigned from the Post, demonstrated the profitability of invention by selling the film rights to the story of Pulitzer Prize fabrication to Columbia Tri-Star Pictures for $1.6 million, though the film was never made.)
Woodward also took advantage of this doctrine when he described in vivid detail a scene in which he extracted a death bed confession from William Casey, the former CIA Director, in his hospital room at Georgetown University hospital just before Casey died of a brain tumor in 1987. But, according to Kevin Shipp, who was part of Casey’s round-the-clock security detail at the hospital, Woodward was turned away at the door and never entered Casey’s room. If so, the interview was pure invention.
The pressure to accept stories based on unverified sources has only increased in the Internet era. In November 2014, for example, Rolling Stone published a stunning story by Sabrina Erdely entitled “A Rape on Campus," It described in gory detail the ritual gang rape on September 28, 2012 of a student identified only as "Jackie" during a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia. It further described the University’s response to the incident as inadequate. As it turned out, however, there was no party held at the fraternity on the night of the alleged rape, the description of the fraternity house was incorrect, and prior to the Rolling Stone story there had not been any allegation of sexual assault against any members of the fraternity. The reporter, who viewed her assignment as finding a campus rape story, had not made any effort to speak to any of the alleged perpetrators. Instead, the story relied on a single questionable source. As the discrepancies mounted, Rolling Stone admitted that its trust in the source was “misplaced.” Rolling Stone editor Will Dana explained, "We made a judgment -- the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. And in this case, our judgment was wrong."
I first became interested in the inventions of the media in 1970 when William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker, asked me to investigate whether the reported killing of 28 members of the Black Panther party was part of a US government “genocide” program to destroy the Black Panther Party. After investigating each case, I discovered that the list of 28 Black Panther deaths was partly invented, proving that there was no basis for the widely circulated press stories of genocide. After The New Yorker published my article in February 1971, both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times wrote editorials apologies for their stories based on the invention of 28 Black Panther supposed deaths.
The essays I have included in this book are all variations on a single theme– the vulnerability of journalism to deception. Even after 45 years, it is very much a work in progress.