Blair-o-meter

How to rate a writer's deceit

From Jonah Lehrer to President Obama, writers keep getting accused of treachery. Here's how to tell when it's real

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    Barack Obama

    0 Blairs (no scandal)

    An example of how smoke can make it hard to see what’s going on, but it doesn’t mean there’s a fire. Last month, Politico posted a story about how Obama had revealed to biographer David Maraniss that a character in “Dreams From My Father” was, in fact, based on multiple women whom Obama had dated. The piece concluded with this ominous line: “Broadway Books [Obama’s publisher], a division of Random House’s Crown Publishing Group, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.” That was likely because that request was ridiculous: In his introduction, Obama had made clear that “some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known.”

    Politico eventually corrected its piece, but that didn’t stop conservative megamouths like Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh from shouting about how Obama had “fabricated [a] girlfriend” and “invent[ed] characters.”

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    Jonah Lehrer

    4 Blairs (Permanent record)

    A needed caveat here: This story is still evolving. As I noted earlier, I don’t find the accusations that Lehrer plagiarized fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell to be convincing. The self-abuse, however, is beyond question, as is at least one case of lifting quotes without proper credit. His total leaves him with a permanent record, but also the possibility that his career will not be defined by these incidents. Any other missteps, however, and he’s likely facing a life sentence.

    Lehrering before June 19, 2012: 1 Blair

    5 or more additional cases that occurred before June 19, 2012: 2 Blairs

    Lifting quotes or reporting without proper attribution or credit: 1 Blair

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    Michael Finkel

    5 Blairs (Lifelong probation)

    I’m including Finkel not because his sins were so egregious or because his case is so well known, but because he’s perhaps the best example of a writer who screwed up, accepted responsibility, and has been able to continue on with his career. In late 2001, Finkel wrote “Is Youssouf Malé a Slave?”, a 6,600-word cover story in the New York Times Magazine about an Ivory Coast child laborer. The piece was devoid of quotes … and, as it turned out, was a little light on factual accuracy as well. According to an appended Editors’ Note, Youssouf Malé was a real boy but the character described in the piece was a composite, Finkel wrote the piece without consulting his notes, many of the facts were “extrapolated from what he learned was typical of boys on such journeys” … you get the idea. Finkel’s fabrications got him fired from the Times; he also accepted responsibility for what he had done. What’s more, as Felix Salmon noted a decade ago, this was more complicated than a reporter handing in a story with various fabrications: Finkel’s initial drafts had been rejected by the Times and he was urged to put together something that was more personal. These days, Finkel writes for National Geographic, among other outlets.
    Finkel’s case is also hard to score: Did he create a composite or fabricate something? I’m going with fabrication — which brings his Blair score right to cusp of the point of no return — although I know some would argue differently.

    Fabrication: 5 Blairs

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    Janet Cooke

    9 Blairs (Life without parole)

    Cooke was a 26-year-old Washington Post writer when she wrote “Jimmy’s World,” a profile of an 8-year-old heroin addict that ran on Sept. 28, 1980. After much public outcry, Washington Mayor Marion Barry claimed the boy had entered treatment and subsequently died. The following April, Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for feature reporting, but after Cooke’s old colleagues at the Toledo Blade read her biographical notes, they noticed a number of entries that didn’t add up — including Cooke’s claims that she’d won previous journalism awards, that she’d graduated from Vassar, and that she’d obtained a master’s degree from the University of Toledo. “Jimmy’s World,” along with much of Cooke’s resume, was soon shown to be a fabrication.

    Fabrication: 5 Blairs
    Lying when confronted with transgressions: 2 Blairs
    Fabrication on resume/misrepresenting qualifications: 2 Blairs

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    Mike Barnicle

    10 Blairs (Solitary confinement)

    For all you young’uns out there, there was a time when Mike Barnicle was more than an overpaid blowhard who appeared regularly on cable TV. He used to also be a print blowhard with a three-times-a-week column in the Boston Globe. His list of journalistic sins is long and tawdry, and includes falsely attributing racial slurs to a white man who worked in a predominantly black neighborhood for a 1973 column, Barnicle’s first year at the Globe. In the early 1990s, Boston Magazine launched a feature titled “Barnicle Watch,” in which it used voter rolls, DMV records and other databases in an attempt to track down some of the colorful, too-good-to-be-true characters that populated Barnicle’s columns; Tommy Boyle, Rita Mae Jackson, Jo-Jo Fallego and a Fed Ex driver named LuLu appear to exist only in Barnicle’s imagination. Late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko accused Barnicle of lifting from his work. The Globe paid Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz tens of thousands of dollars to settle a claim arising from Barnicle’s charge that Dershowitz liked Asian women because they were “so submissive.” For all this, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Barnicle’s lame denial when accused of lifting one-liners from George Carlin’s “Brain Droppings” book for a 1998 column.

    Barnicle’s Blairs also far exceed 10; what makes his case all the more incredible is that he continues to be employed.
    Multiple fabrications: 10 Blairs
    Multiple cases of improper credit: 5 Blairs
    Lying when confronted with transgressions: 2 Blairs

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    Stephen Glass

    10 Blairs (Solitary confinement)

    Before Jayson Blair’s terror spree, Glass was the modern-day examplar of a journalistic suicide bomber: From 1995 to 1998, Glass published a string of dozens of stories in the New Republic (and a handful of other glossies) that were partially or wholly fabricated. Part of what makes Glass’ fraud so remarkable is the lengths he went to perpetrate it, creating fake voice mail accounts, websites and business cards for the fictional characters that populated his stories. Unfortunately for Glass, his next chosen profession was one that, unlike journalism, does have an official licensing body: Despite earning his law degree from Georgetown and passing the California bar, Glass has thus far not been granted the right to practice law in the state. (He withdrew an earlier application in New York state after learning that he would likely be rejected there as well.) Glass has some other distinctions, too, including being the only person on our list who was portrayed on the big screen by a Jedi Knight.

    Like fellow listers Blair and Barnicle, Glass’ Blair total far exceeds 10.
    Multiple fabrications: 10 Blairs
    Lying when confronted with transgressions: 5 Blairs
    Composite characters/re-phrasing quotes: 7 Blairs

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    Jayson Blair

    10 Blairs (Solitary confinement)

    Almost a decade after the fact, Blair’s spectacular run of fraud and malfeasance continues to boggle the mind: He plagiarized entire pieces for the front page of the New York Times; he made up stories about returning war veterans, murder suspects and missing servicemen; he lied to editors; he gloated about it after he was caught. (For anyone interested in Blair’s sorry tale, I know a pretty good book written on the subject.)

    A full tally of Blair’s Blairs would end up much higher than 10; I stopped counting when I got above 20.
    Multiple fabrications: 10 Blairs
    Multiple cases of plagiarism: 6 Blairs
    Multiple cases of improper credit: 5 Blairs
    Lying when confronted with transgressions: 2 Blairs