Return of the journalist supervillains!

The moral posturing that surrounds media scandal obscures regular, run-of-the-mill journalistic sleaze


James Poniewozik
May 27, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Its attack-dog image notwithstanding, when it comes to confronting its own, journalism is a profession of repression: sotto voce sniping, teeth-gritting accommodations of colleagues who could someday screw you. That might explain the sanctimonious gusto with which journalists heap scorn on compeers caught doing something undeniably wrong. Annihilating a safe target like Janet Cooke seems positively cathartic.

But there are higher reasons. As the media's recent rogue's gallery of public examples shows, supervillains are useful.

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A little well-conceived public indignation can, for instance, usefully conceal journalistic shortcomings. Thus, when New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata published a trumped-up story on cancer research while floating a $2 million book proposal on the same subject, she cleared the way for the three major newsmagazines to run screaming cover packages opportunistically portending the end of cancers with the Kolata controversy as a pretext.

U.S. News and World Report led off its cover story by tsk-tsking about the newspapers whose "headlines ... blared, 'Cancer Cure.'" Of course, the magazine of journalistic-integrity crusader James Fallows would never stoop so low: Its cover blares, "A Cure? Meet the mouse that beat cancer." Ah, sweet question mark: One teensy keystroke can cover so much ass.

Time's contribution scores a trifecta: the best overview of current cancer research, the best analysis of the Kolata fiasco and the best use of cover graphics to effect the same hype it condemns in print: the word "CANCER," a good inch-and-a-half high, with a fat red X through it. Christine Gorman's fine lead story, a step-by-step read of the Times saga, is good general-interest science writing and sharp media criticism. Trouble is, most of its critiques of Kolata's story apply just as well to Time. Kolata's story included "nothing factually inaccurate" and "was sprinkled with the necessary caveats." Likewise, Time and Newsweek's "CANCER" and "CURE" banners were leavened by smaller print promising to separate "hope" from "hype" (an exculpatory word ladder the weeklies keep under glass for just such emergencies).

Of course there's no excuse for what Kolata did. But this only points out how little distinguished her story from newsmagazines' regular fare. Readers don't care so much about writers' profiteering, but they resent it when magazines exploit their health fears to sell issues -- which is exactly what the newsweeklies got to do while copping Cronkite poses.

Kolata was good for a week, but the supervillain who kept on giving was Stephen Glass, the talented 25-year-old New Republic writer fired this month for fabrications in numerous stories.

The Glass scandal left TNR with a clear image problem -- problems that weren't helped by Time's May 25 report that TNR's fact-checking had dwindled to one staff member under editor Charles Lane. But if you're the victim of a known supervillain, such a lapse is more understandable. Thus TNR's editorial apology (June 1) notes its fact-checking department wasn't designed to work against "someone who ... has no business in journalism," but says nothing about the magazine's checking process. Defending TNR to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, Lane says, "Even our fact-checking system is not immune to a man like this"; in Time, Lane charges Glass with outright malice: "We had a scorpion in our shirt. ... Glass is a man without honor who operated out of hostility and contempt."

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Now, there are perfectly good arguments for not having commando-grade fact-checking departments; even for having no fact-checkers at all, as TNR alum Michael Kinsley nimbly argued in a Slate editor's column. But TNR's language tries to have it both ways: You should have as much faith in us as in any other magazine, because we have a strong "system" -- whatever it is. But it was made to deal with humans! Getting scammed by a kid who wants to be famous, sure, that's embarrassing. But being bitten by a scorpion! Falling into the wily trap of Kid Fabricator!

Lane may be justifiably pissed, but he didn't exactly cut the San Jose Mercury News slack during its own supervillain caper. In the Nov. 25, 1996, TNR he slammed Gary Webb for his famously discredited report linking the CIA, Nicaraguan contras and the inner-city crack epidemic. The charges were "patently bogus. ... The notion of a CIA plot to finance the contras and kill blacks with crack ... is illogical on its face." And a TNR reporter's sitting in on a misogynistic young-conservatives' bacchanalia isn't?

Depends on your 'hood, I guess. Glass' stories appealed to his readers' suspicions and biases, sometimes liberalism (see Ana Marie Cox's incisive reading in Feed), sometimes the jaded agnosticism of Beltway and media insiders (his métier was lampooning true believers, from the Concord Coalition to now-implausible religious groups like a church dedicated to George Bush).

All together now: "Of course, there's no excuse for what Stephen Glass did." But here's where his supervillain apotheosis lets not just TNR but you and me off the hook. If we didn't sufficiently vilify him, we might have to question more deeply why he got past us. Who could help it? He was just too malevolently brilliant.

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Thus Glass's damnation must be unanimous, eternal and absolute. Which is sort of a shame. I detest a high-paid 25-year-old fraud as much as the next guy: Glass deserved to be fired and to do time in the wilderness besides, and I hope he doesn't parlay his ignominy into a rich book deal. But while I'd probably never trust his reporting again, he might make a fine essayist someday. Trust is crucial to the relationship of writers and readers; but like a lot of other relationships, it's far more complicated than our posturing about it -- satisfying though it is to take that risky anti-lying stance. Imposing a death sentence on Glass is just self-flattery in a profession that forgives so much venality and bad faith.

A healthy bout of supervillain chasing can elevate even the least vaunted media genres, as when Vanity Fair cut ties with Lynn Hirschberg after she purportedly leaked Jerry Seinfeld an advance copy of her May cover profile on him, a charge Hirschberg denies.

Of course there's no ex -- oh, Christ. It's almost enough to make you want to excuse what Hirschberg supposedly did. Sure, you should never show a copy of an article to its subject -- but consider the highly compromised genre we're discussing. Axing a writer in a disputed case to demonstrate the journalistic ethics of your celebrity profiles -- using "journalistic ethics" and "celebrity profiles" in the same sentence -- should make a Hollywood publicist laugh hard enough to miss her exit. Is anyone really going to look at this show trial and say: "Vanity Fair -- now there's the place for hard-hitting celebrity journalism"? Of course not; least of all editor Graydon Carter, who freely admits celebrity covers simply bankroll VF's serious pieces. "If you didn't need (celebrities) on the cover," he told the New York Times, "I probably wouldn't even do them."

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The post-mortems of incidents like Glass et al. inevitably forecast damage to the profession, and in the long run that may be true. But after a long season of demoralizing, generalized quagmires like Di and Monica, the media's recent encounter with the Legion of Doom must be a kind of tonic. Finally, a name! A face! A culprit we can disdain right along with the normal folks who can't stand us!

And so we do, opining until the story gets cold and we return to our malaise, our nebulous soul-searching, longing at our Nexis terminals for another supervillain to come along and save us.

Atlas Shrugs It Off. In his New Yorker essays, James Atlas has made upper-middle-class writer's resentment into a mini-genre: the tsooris of having a child in a Manhattan private school; the impossibility of buying an Upper East Side townhouse at a reasonable price nowadays. So I expected to read "The Art of Failing" (May 25), in which he compares himself to an old friend who's now head of UPN television, with my own middle-middle-class writer's resentment. He completely surprised me; his examination of grieving for one's dreams and recollection of early literary disappointments (he compiled, after a novel was savagely reviewed, "desperate lists of 'people who liked the book'") is honest, unsparing yet consoling without descending to schmaltz. True, by the definition of failure held by Atlas and his classmates (Harvard '71) -- realizing you won't win the Nobel, being merely a Vanity Fair columnist and biographer instead of a celebrated novelist -- most of us haven't even done well enough to fail yet; but this piece recommends itself to anyone who's still working at it.

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James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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