Would you tell a lie to someone if you thought you could get away with it? What about if you were telling a lie to thousands of people in a national newspaper or television segment?
We trust journalists to tell us about what is happening in the world. After all, they are supposed to be advocates of truth; an autonomous, objective voice that keeps us informed. But what happens when that voice is corrupt? After all, reporters are human too. Cutting corners to get ahead in a career isn’t unheard of. However, if you’re a journalist, you aren’t just lying to your boss, or your coworkers, but sometimes an entire nation.
Journalism is a competitive business with incredible pressures to find eye-opening stories under rigid deadlines. Some high-powered journalists who want to make it to the top crack under pressure. Faced with failure, they will cheat.
From plagiarism, to phone hacking, to straight up making things up these are five of the biggest media scandals, and how people passed lies off as news.
5. Janet Cooke: The Washington Post journalist who made up an 8-year-old Heroin Addict
At 26 years old, Janet Cooke had the career break that most budding journalists can only dream of. On September 28th, 1980, the Washington Post put her story, “Jimmy’s World”, on the front page. Cooke’s report was about a young boy in the District of Columbia who she described as “8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms”. The boy, who Cooke called “Jimmy”, had allegedly been a heroin addict since he was five, and needed his mother’s boyfriend to help him shoot up.
The public was outraged, and the story went viral, hitting the media nationally and then internationally. There was an outcry to find the family and rescue Jimmy, but Cooke told the public she had promised her source’s anonymity. When a police and public service search turned up inconclusive, people became suspicious, and began questioning whether Cooke had made the whole thing up. It wasn’t until after the story had won a Pulitzer, and Cooke’s old employers at Toledo Blade realized Cooke’s Pulitzer entry on her education and skills didn’t match her resume she had submitted to them years before, that Cooke admitted she had cooked up the story. Cooke returned the Pulitzer, and was promptly fired.
4. Jonah Lehrer: The Freelancer Who Published Made Up Bob Dylan Quotes
American novelist Jonah Lehrer was born a year after the Cooke scandal in 1981. He grew up with an interest in the humanities and the sciences, and became an author, journalist, and speaker. He wrote articles for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe, and then went on to write three best-selling novels…two of which are no longer on the shelves and were removed from publication. Why? Lehrer had been caught fabricating quotes by none other than the legendary Bob Dylan.
A journalist and Dylan fan, Michael Moynihan, found that he couldn’t find the quotes Lehrer used in his book Imagine, after investigating the ones he couldn’t recognize. When Moynihan accused Lehrer, Lehrer lied, only admitting three weeks later to the deceit, saying “ The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie.”
It was later discovered that Lehrer was recycling his old work for The New York Times and Wired, and he was let go from both.
3. Jayson Blair: The New York Times Reporter Who Lied About…Just About Everything
Like Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair was a young, driven, impressive journalist. The 27-year-old was hired by New York Times after an internship, and he skyrocketed to a position as a national reporter in just five years. Unlike Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair wasn’t content with just making up facts, and plagiarized in addition to fabricating sources, events and scenes, in a grand total of almost half of all his work submitted to the Times.
Somehow, Blair had been promoted to the national desk in 2002, despite making enough mistakes during his time as a local reporter and intern that his local editor sent out an email saying, ““We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now”. It wasn’t until April 25th, 2003, that a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, Macarena Hernández, read Blair’s article on a woman whose son had been lost in Iraq, that she recognized her own work, with just enough changes to show that Blair had never been to the woman’s house or spoken to her. Hernández alerted the Times, who launched an investigation that revealed that this wasn’t the only thing Blair had done. Blair had said he had interviewed people he didn’t, fabricated quotes, plagiarized and made up scenes and events that he said he had witnessed while out of state when really he was working from another floor of the New York Times building, or from his Brooklyn apartment. After leaving the Times, Blair became a life coach. One would hope that he gives better advice to others than he clearly gave himself.
2. Dateline NBC: Fakes The News By Rigging a General Motors Safety Test
On November 17th, 1992, Dateline NBC aired “Waiting To Explode”, a 15 minute investigative report on the questionable safety of certain models of General Motors’ trucks. Consumers were accusing the automaker of improperly installing gas takes on the side of the vehicle, and the Center for Auto Safety claimed that this was directly responsible for over 300 deaths, as the trucks would burst into flames in an accident with a side impact collision. To prove them right, Dateline NBC conducted a safety test where they staged two side-impact collisions with two 1977 General Motors pickup trucks. “Staged” is exactly what they did.
To ensure that the trucks made a satisfying “BOOM”, the producers allowed remote-controlled explosive devices on to the trucks to ensure the “exploded into flame” effect. As purveyors of truth and objectivity, faking the news and deceiving the audience is definitely frowned upon.
GM launched a defamation suit against Dateline NBC and withdrew their advertising. NBC news anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips were made to read a 3.5 minute apology to General Motors on air. With the apology and Dateline NBC promising to pay GM financial remuneration, GM retracted their lawsuit.
1. News of the World: Phone Hacking Scandal
NSAs aren’t the only organizations tapping into phone lines and hacking into computers. In a scandal spanning back to 2006-2007, it was discovered that journalists at News of The World, a UK newspaper, were hiring private investigators to illegally hack into the voicemail messages, tax records, social security files and bank statements of public officials, celebrities, relatives of dead UK soldiers, and people involved in the 7/7 London Bombings. The fact that 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone was illegally hacked by News of The World after the incident was reported disgusted readers.
It was revealed that instead of being a few rogue journalists, it was a systematic problem at News of The World. Private investigator Glen Mulcaire personally hacked 2226 phones over a five year period, and other investigators continued the work after his arrest, with an estimated total of over 4000 individuals being hacked.
Rupert Murdoch, owner of News of The World, closed the paper in 2011 in response to the scandal.