Among the professions that drive America, journalists float somewhere just above or below the rank of lawyers and used-car salesmen. That’s true only for Americans. In parts of the world less free, where people have neither the luxury nor time to complain about NFL halftime shows, journalists are a dangerous species.
Consider Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. Iranian authorities were so threatened by her photographs of a brutal police crackdown on protesters they decided that only beating her to death would teach her where, and where not, to point her lens. Or take Cuban journalist and poet Raul Rivero, a man so brave he didn’t mind risking a 20-year prison sentence for criticizing Fidel Castro. Haunted by the image of a starving Sudanese girl crouched next to a lurking vulture waiting to feed, and by his own personal problems, South African photographer Kevin Carter committed suicide shortly after winning the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. The list of those who sacrificed their personal lives, or even life altogether, for the profession humbles every journalist who remains safe within the boundaries of the free world, where we deal in matters much less consequential than despotic governments.
It’s the journalist’s job to spark debate, provoke reform and even disturb your dreams. But for a good while now, we’ve been wasting our time on disgraced practitioners who’ve somehow managed to swing book and movie deals. After inventing sources and accounts from whole cloth in some three dozen stories, and plagiarizing lines from others, former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair scored a six-figure advance for a weepy book titled Burning Down My Master’s House. After fabricating 27 articles for The New Republic, disgraced reporter Stephen Glass actually managed to publish a novel, and get that story of his lying ways memorialized as a movie. USA Today reporter Jack Kelley is the latest casualty, but so far his alleged sin of fabrications in eight lengthy pieces over a 10-year span seems minor alongside Blair and Glass.
Despite reports that neither book by Blair or Glass has blasted through the best-seller list, it’s odd that the public distrusts journalists on one hand, but is apparently fascinated by their sins on the other. Could it be that the public really isn’t surprised that journalists screw up, fabricate, and even lie?
Lest you think journalism is an easy profession, try it on for size sometime: find a trend, person, or chain of events interesting and compelling enough to chronicle (they must be verified, documented and grounded in reality), research those events and read up on background information (so that you understand your topic clearly) interview your subjects (they must be quoted accurately), then arrange your findings in narrative form so entertaining your reader couldn’t possibly put down your story for another distraction (you’re competing against television, pop music, everyone’s time constraints and, hell, maybe even pornography). Do all that, and make the world a more just, enlightened place at the same time.
No such professional challenges are any excuse for the damning shortcuts of Blair and Glass. But it would be nice if the Kazemis and Carters of the world had their stories told as well. Then the public might know the price of free speech.