No, I am not shocked by news that writers for the Boston Globe and the New Republic have been serving up fiction dressed as fact.
They shouldn't have done it. Of course not. But let the truth be said: Few forms of human activity lend themselves so readily to fakery as journalism.There is, to begin with, the tradition of the "source." The "source" must be protected at all costs. Rather than tell anyone who the "source" is, the reporter must be willing to hang shackled to dungeon walls or do time on a chain gang.
Betraying a "source" is as unspeakable as a New York cop telling investigators which of his colleagues beat the prisoners with horsewhips. Betraying a "source" is to dishonor the profession, as journalists are apt to miscall their trade when they assemble to be solemn about themselves.
It is not a profession, of course. The journalist is always a hired hand, and there is always a boss who can have his head at a whim if angry enough to challenge the journalist's union.
Still, the journalist has something akin to a code of ethics, and one ironbound rule is that a "source" must never be betrayed. The problem about "sources" is that, because their existence is known only to the journalist, it is possible for them not to exist at all.
The tradition makes the news business vulnerable to the unscrupulous and the lazy. There are plenty like that in all lines of work, journalism included.
When the competition becomes murderous, as in the Monica Lewinsky story, for instance, the temptation to invent "sources" can obviously lead to perdition for a reporter with an insecure boss leaning on him to produce something . . . anything . . . fast!
What we are talking about is simply cheating. You encounter a lot of it every day in many a realm; why suppose that the percentage of it among journalists is lower?
"Scoop," Evelyn Waugh's classic and hilarious satire on journalism, supposes an utterly unprincipled business in which fakery is a way of life. In "Scoop," everything is fraudulent, including the hero, an innocent nature lover forced to pass himself off as an ace war correspondent because of a stupid publisher and cynical editors.
Waugh's reporters file three- and four-word messages from a primitive jungle state with a war in progress. These are expanded by editors in London into sensational accounts of events that didn't happen. The competition is incredible and everybody conspires in inventing the news.
Competition's devastating effect on careful journalism is brutally and embarrassingly illustrated by Steven Brill's article, "Pressgate," in the first issue of his new magazine, Content. Brill's study describes something like a media panic that occurred with the Monica Lewinsky story.
Under pressure not to be scooped, news people published whatever was "out there," without pausing to confirm it.
Now that television never sleeps, it needs round-the-clock news, and on an intensely competitive story he who stops long enough to check must lose the race. This, at any rate, is what apologists for the TV networks told Brill.
All this brings back memories of working in Fleet Street, London headquarters of the British press, 40 years ago. Waugh's "Scoop" was based on Fleet Street's popular journalism, and his point was that it was ridiculously fraudulent. It was indeed.