A recent wave of deceit, fraud and plagiarism has plagued the mainstream news media. How can you be sure that the news you receive is true?
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Dark times have fallen upon the world of journalism. Far and wide, plagiarism, inaccuracies, misquotes and outright fraud have riddled the landscape of the mainstream press. Even America’s most prestigious newspaper, The New York Times, which proclaims to publish “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” has been touched—rocked—by scandal.
An initial internal probe into the work of a Times reporter revealed fraud, plagiarism and inaccuracies in 36 of 73 articles. More accounts of deceit have been discovered since then. The Times published a 14,000-word, 4½-page statement explaining this man’s plagiarism rampage.
Here is what the probe revealed:
When assigned to travel out of state to cover national news stories, this reporter hid at home. He then copied—stole—the hard work of other reporters, passing it off as his own. He also invented stories, making up details and fraudulently describing scenes and events as if he had actually witnessed them. He made up quotes as he saw fit, quoting people uttering statements they never spoke.
This man’s disgrace and subsequent resignation created a ripple effect throughout The Times newsroom. Staff morale dwindled.
Less than a month after his resignation, the executive editor and managing editor of The New York Times were also forced to resign.
Is this reporter repentant? Far from it. When caught, he showed little remorse, choosing instead to blame his superiors and the daily pressures in his life. In interviews, he lashed out at The Times, laughing at its investigation of his past work. Referring to his former employers, he commented, “I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism.” When he did blame himself, he said that he might have been too young to work for a “snake pit” like The Times. He also pointed to his long struggle with alcohol and cocaine.
In one interview, this man did apologize, somewhat, adding that he wants to write his side of the story. He has even hired an agent to shop around for book, movie and television deals, so that others would learn from his mistakes and “heal.”
This New York Times fiasco has been the lowest point in the paper’s 152-year history. It has also sparked endless discussions, debates, soul searching and hand wringing in newsrooms across the country and beyond.
What is amazing is that those who knew that this reporter had misquoted them did not bother to complain to The Times.
It soon came to light that another man, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter, submitted under his byline an article that was largely reported by an unpaid, uncredited freelancer. Upon suspension from work, he attempted to justify himself, claiming that other Times reporters routinely used freelancers without giving them a byline credit. He immediately received an avalanche of e-mails from co-workers refuting his claim. Feeling the heat, he soon resigned.
Due to scandals such as the above, many simply conclude that reporters commonly make up the facts.
The recent Times scandal has led many—readers and newsmakers alike—to ask: “If it can happen at The New York Times, what about the rest of the news media?” In countless newsrooms across America, editors and reporters endlessly debate about how and why the Times fiasco happened.
Was it the paper’s aggressive drive for newsroom diversity at any cost—including overlooking the glaring weaknesses of those being groomed for “stardom”? Was it youth? (Hired in his early twenties, the first reporter mentioned had been granted opportunities few ever receive at such an age.) Was it the paper’s “star” system, which spotlights certain reporters while ignoring others? Was it the daily pressures of meeting tight deadlines, while being expected to produce Pulitzer Prize-winning material? (In 2002, The Times received a record seven Pulitzers.)
Or was it something deeper, more sinister—yet basic to the very heart of human nature?
Whatever the blame, numerous news organizations are hunting for solutions. Many are turning to setting up fact-checking departments. Or hiring an ombudsman—a reader’s representative. Or devising better ways to nurture journalists and encourage open communication among the news staff (which is ironic, since their occupation is to communicate to the public).
In the end, however, none of these or other humanly-devised solutions will work. We will soon reveal why.
The vast majority of reporters do strive to live up to a strict standard of work ethics. They labor long and hard to dig up facts, conduct interviews and report the news with accuracy and detail.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Though rare, lies and deceit in journalism are not uncommon:
• In the state of Washington, a jailed convicted murderer hired his former cellmate to burn down a house and commit murder in the process. However, the would-be contract killer informed the authorities of the plot. At the request of the sheriff’s office, a local newspaper published a false arson story in order to provide “proof” to the convicted murderer that his contract had been carried out.
Though the newspaper’s intentions were sincere, it intentionally deceived the public. Did the ends truly justify the means? Even journalists cannot agree.
• An up-and-coming sports writer at a Missouri newspaper decided to broaden his career path by taking on the extra task of writing a weekly movie review. Unfortunately, he did it by stealing word-for-word film reviews from a nationally-known movie critic.
• A Connecticut newspaper learned that one of its freelancers, a popular food writer, plagiarized recipes and their histories, as well as websites featuring them, nearly word-for-word. Just five months earlier, the same newspaper had suspended one of its sports reporters for copying articles from another newspaper.
• In 1961, a prominent writer for The New Yorker, wrote “Letter from Barcelona.” In his article, he described Spaniards sitting in a “small flyblown bar,” openly jeering a televised speech by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Yet, 22 years later, the reporter admitted that the bar had been shut down years before the article was written. Apparently, he used “literary license” in order to reach a “higher truth.”
• Several years ago, a popular television journalist stood in front of a news camera wearing an overcoat, and intentionally gave the impression that she was reporting in front of the U.S. Capitol. In truth, her televised report had been taped inside, at an ABC News studio. The network later apologized for misleading its viewers.
• On the cover of National Geo-graphic, a photo of Egypt’s Great Pyramids was digitally manipulated in order to move one of the pyramids to a “better” position.
• During the recent war in Iraq, a Los Angeles Times photographer digitally altered two news photos. Both were different pictures of a British soldier holding a rifle as he stood above a kneeling crowd of Iraqis. Without his editors’ knowledge, the photographer combined the two photos together to create a composite, and then transmitted it to headquarters. When it was discovered that the photo, which ran on the front page, had been altered, the Los Angeles Times immediately published an apology.
• Two Salt Lake City reporters were fired for secretly selling to a national tabloid $20,000-worth of rumor and information about a prominent kidnapping case.
• In exchange for maintaining privileged media access to sources inside Iraq, CNN deliberately did not report its knowledge of horrendous crimes committed by the Saddam Hussein regime—including mass torture, murder, rape, disappearances and assassination plans. CNN’s silence lasted 12 years. Had these crimes been publicized, more countries may have been swayed to ally with the U.S., Britain and Australia in their invasion of Iraq.
• In 1994, Time and Newsweek published on their front covers a police mug shot of O.J. Simpson after he was arrested for the murder of his wife and her friend. However, Time intentionally manipulated Simpson’s image to darken his face, bringing out a “five-o’clock shadow,” making him more sinister-looking than the Newsweek cover.
• In 1997, Time and Newsweek ran on their covers an image of a mother who gave birth to septuplets. This time, Newsweek was guilty—it digitally altered the woman’s photograph to straighten and lighten her teeth. As in the Simpson incident, journalists howled, complaining that it is just as wrong to alter visual news as it is to alter news that is written.
When journalists lie, contrive facts or even slant the news to fit their own preconceived notions, they betray the trust of the public. When they plagiarize—“steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; use (another’s production) without crediting the source; commit literary theft; present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source” (Merriam-Webster)—they, in effect, taint the image of the mainstream press, and give honest, hardworking reporters, photographers and editors a bad name.
When a licensed professional, such as a doctor or lawyer, transgresses—intentionally breaks his profession’s rule of ethics, harming patients or clients in the process—his license is taken away. He is no longer able to legally practice his profession. And he is no longer in a position to harm future patrons.
But what happens when a journalist turns sour? How is he punished?
Journalism is not a profession—it is a trade. Though a great many reporters and editors are college graduates (and, in some cases, earn salaries comparable to that of licensed professionals), many become journalists without ever earning a degree. As a trade, journalism is a hands-on occupation—learned through tough, on-the-job experience. When a reporter or editor is found guilty of lying or plagiarizing, he need not worry about losing his license to practice journalism—such a license does not exist!
However, he can expect to be suspended or even lose his job. Deemed “damaged goods,” he may be shunned by every news organization in the land.
In 1981, one reporter, while at the Washington Post, wrote “Jimmy’s World,” a heart-wrenching article detailing the life of an eight-year-old boy. Jimmy’s dreary existence was caught in a cycle of heroin addiction, violence, misery, hopelessness and despair. Her story generated much controversy and widespread attention, even leading to winning the Pulitzer Prize.
Unfortunately, there was one problem—“Jimmy” never existed. He was an invention of this reporter’s mind. A piece of fiction. A lie.
Upon her admission, she resigned. Humiliated, the Post returned the Pulitzer. Since her disgrace, Cooke’s days as an on-the-rise journalist have long been over. Though she managed to sell her story to Hollywood for a substantial amount of money (the movie was never made), when last heard from, she was working as a sales clerk in a Michigan department store.
Like most journalists who give in to the temptation to steal, lie and deceive, this woman was penalized by her peers.
But this is not always the case.
Though some frauds and plagiarists are shunned in journalistic circles, and become permanently unemployable in their field, others are still able to find work as journalists. Some even profit from lucrative book deals.
Another reporter was forced to resign from his high-profile columnist position at the Boston Globe after it was discovered that he had plagiarized other people’s work several times, passing it off as his own. Yet today, he is a commentator for MSNBC news, sometimes filling in as host for Hardball With Chris Matthews. He is also a columnist for the New York Daily News.
Fired from The Dallas Morning News for plagiarizing, another reporter has since written for New York magazine, as well as The New Yorker. She is also the best-selling author of Prozac Nation.
Another reporter was guilty of fictionalizing and embellishing details in several articles for The New Republic magazine. Yet, his disgrace did not keep him from getting his recent book published—a “fictionalized” novel about a reporter who shades the truth.
As you can see, being a discredited journalist can sometimes mean reaping even greater financial rewards.
For years, many have accused mainstream news of being politically biased, and tainting everything it reports with a liberal slant. But is this true? Consider the following:
The press often refers to conservative republicans as “right-wingers”—yet liberal democrats are rarely, if ever, called “left-wingers.”
During the recent Gulf War, The New York Times was accused of slanting its front-page news to match the largely liberal views of the paper’s editorial section.
The Guardian, a left-wing British newspaper, published two articles “proving” that U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair fabricated compelling reasons for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam’s despotic regime. The stories were later retracted when The Guardian’s charges were found baseless.
In her popular New York Times column, another female reporter chastised President Bush for being smug and overconfident in a speech, in which he declared that “Al-Qaida is on the run,” just days before the terrorist organization carried out a major bombing in Saudi Arabia.
She wrote, “Busy chasing off Saddam, the president and vice president had told us that al-Qaida was spent. ‘Al-Qaida is on the run,’ President Bush said last week. ‘That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated…They’re not a problem anymore.’”
A closer examination reveals that this woman used ellipses to omit what President Bush had actually said—completely changing the meaning of his remarks.
Removing the ellipse reveals what the President actually said: “Al-Qaida is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top al-Qaida operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they’re not a problem anymore.”
When he said, “they’re not a problem anymore,” the President was clearly referring to the al-Qaida terrorists who were already imprisoned or dead. He was not talking about al-Qaida as a whole. Yet, the column left readers believing otherwise.
During the recent Gulf War, the BBC was accused of repeatedly slanting its news coverage to match its anti-war stance. Even some of its reporters, who were embedded with allied troops, complained that the stories they reported and sent in from the frontlines were not accurately reflected by what was later released by their editors.
Their constant anti-war slanting of news reports became so problematic, the British royal navy removed the BBC from reporting aboard one of its warships.
In coming out of retirement to write a weekly opinion piece, television news legend Walter Cronkite revealed that he considered himself a social liberal. He also admitted to a liberal bias in the mainstream press, quickly adding that he thought this was overstated by conservative critics.
The executive editor of The Los Angeles Times wrote an internal memo and ordered editors under his authority to stop putting a liberal slant on politically-charged hard news stories, such as abortion.
Dick Morris, former political consultant for President Clinton and political commentator for Fox News, recently made a startling revelation. According to Morris, the top editor for The New York Times essentially implied that if then President Clinton would grant an interview, The Times would not publish stories regarding several scandals that were becoming issues during the President’s 1996 re-election campaign. The president gave The Times its interview, and, apparently, the paper followed through on its implied promise.
Journalism is a craft, not a science. It involves obtaining hard facts and making sense of them. It involves determining which topic is more important, which is lesser, which is frivolous. This requires news judgment.
Seven days a week, editors at daily newspapers meet at least once a day to discuss which of their cache of articles should occupy the front page. What should be the centerpiece, the story that dominates the page. What photos should be used. What stories should be “above the fold,” the top half of the newspaper, which the public sees displayed at newsstands and magazine racks.
Making the right decisions requires experience and knowing one’s audience. In other words, good news judgment. And, by definition, judgment involves opinion, tempered by experience. Part of news judgment (for good or bad) is that topics grow cold and are no longer touted as top news.
Have you ever noticed how certain topics are continuously touted as “big news”—yet mysteriously disappear after a few days or weeks, usually unresolved, only to be replaced by another “hot” story?
For example: Just before and at the start of the recent Gulf War, the North Korean threat of nuclear weapons was a big issue. Now, there is barely a whisper of the situation. Did North Korea’s nukes suddenly go away?—Is their dictator leader no longer a threat?—What changed? Nothing, except that news editors around the world collectively decided that it was no longer a hot-button issue—that there were plenty of red-hot stories to replace it.
So goes the daily news cycle, run by the engine of experienced news judgment, mixed with personal preference, bias and opinion.
Sometimes, the press gets things wrong not because of fraud or plagiarism, but because of just plain journalistic sloppiness and failure to follow through.
Take this for example: During the recent Gulf War, a British Royal Marine commando noticed that his Kevlar helmet was riddled with four bullet holes, thanks to fellow soldiers who were busy trying to hit an anti-tank weapon. Seeing him wear his bullet-ridden helmet, reporters on the scene jumped to conclusions and, without properly interviewing him, assumed that the helmet must have just saved the marine’s life during a fierce firefight. As photographers snapped pictures of the soldier wearing his helmet, neither he nor his fellow marines said anything to stop the reporters from jumping to the wrong conclusion. Dubbed the “miracle marine” and “the luckiest soldier,” the young man’s picture was shown in newspapers and television news programs around the world. Only later did he confess the truth.
When researching stories, reporters often rely on Lexis-Nexis, a valuable database of legal information (business transactions, run-ins with the law, etc.) and a virtual storehouse of archived news from newspapers, journals and magazines around the globe.
Sometimes, problems arise when, for example, a reporter looks up past press clippings of a political candidate. Suppose the candidate was reported as having been arrested for drunk driving in another state. The reporter will dutifully note this, but may not discover that this was a false report, corrected some time later.
Case in point: The misquoting of President Bush’s speech (mentioned previously) was published by other news organizations, who were not aware of her misleading omission. As a result, more readers were given the wrong impression of what the President actually said.
Lies, fraud and literary theft are nothing new to the press. Journalism has a long history of shading the truth, slanting news coverage to fit certain political biases, and, at times, inventing “facts” out of fiction.
Some have credited newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst with starting the Spanish-American War. Amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Spain, Hearst’s newspapers published stories that worked to continually fan the flames, eventually leading to armed conflict. Reportedly, Hearst told one of his sketch artists, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll supply the war.”
H.L. Mencken, considered one of journalism’s greats, boasted of dreaming up false news stories while reporting for the Baltimore Herald, at the start of the twentieth century. He bragged of publishing weekly stories about a Baltimore “wild man,” which he had invented. Another time, he wrote a straight-faced article that celebrated the 75th anniversary of the bathtub. In it, Mencken noted that Millard Fillmore, when vice-president of the U.S., became a champion of tubs. Though pure fiction, the article was presented as fact, and fooled a great many.
In 1932, a New York Times reporter won the Pulitzer Prize for writing in great length about the Soviet Union.
However, history has shown that he intentionally ignored Stalin’s infamous campaign of manmade famine, which starved as many as seven million Ukrainians!
Mencken, along with A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell and other greats of journalism, lived in a time when telling tall tales and “dressing up” the facts to make a better read were the norm. This is reflected in the 1931 film The Front Page and its remake, His Girl Friday. Both films give a humorous—and many say accurate—picture of the early twentieth-century press, in which journalists are portrayed as inventing the news while ignoring the bare facts happening right before their eyes.
As King Solomon once wrote, “…there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9).
Why so many accounts of lies, fraud and deceit? Why is there so much bias and slanted news coverage in the media?
The answer is simple: Human nature. Because of the deceitfulness of the carnal mind, many journalists choose to steal, lie, or slant the facts to reflect their own personal opinion. A reporter is trained to look for facts, not the TRUTH. Journalists who do search for the truth do so with built-in biases.
God’s Word is TRUTH (John 17:17)—and His Word is the Bible. Think of it as God’s point of view (His will, thoughts and desires) in written form. The Bible also can tell you about yourself, and what drives your thinking and actions (Heb. 4:12).
God’s Word reveals that all people (including journalists) walk according to the ways of this world. And this is because they are actively and continually being influenced by the “god of this world” (II Cor. 4:4). As the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), this powerful, deceitful being—the author of raw, base carnality—broadcasts wrong attitudes, desires, impulses, mindsets and thoughts. Remarkably, he has even deceived the whole world (Rev. 12:9) into believing that he does not exist! This being is so effective at this massive worldwide deception that most people laugh at the notion that he could actually exist—much less be ruling over the earth!
Yet, Jesus Christ called him “the father of lies,” the originator of all lust and murder (John 8:44). To know the identity of this malevolent being and how he influences the world, read our free booklet Did God Create Human Nature?
Since the time of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, this being has led people to set themselves up as their own judges. Each man wants to decide for himself right from wrong, good from evil. He wants to create his own personal rules. No one wants to learn what God, our Maker, thinks. People do not want our Creator and Master Potter to tell them what to do.
And because people cannot agree—cannot perfectly walk together in peace and harmony, because it does not live the same standards in every corner of life—mankind has continually reaped violence, strife, misery, war, suffering, pain and death.
Men think they know everything they need to know to live joyful, successful, peaceful lives. But here is what God’s Word reveals about man:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9).
“O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: It is not in man that walks to direct his steps” (10:23).
“All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes” (16:2).
“For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:5-7).
No wonder some resort to fraud and deceit in reporting the news! Man cannot—of and by himself—determine right from wrong. He cannot trust himself to truly know and judge the difference between good and evil.
The result? To one man, fabricating the facts is wrong. To another, it is “literary license.” And to another, certain degrees of “dressing up” the details are acceptable.
Man is naturally attuned to the ways of carnal nature, which are described in Galatians 5:16-21. But those who are led—whose minds are empowered—by God’s Holy Spirit live according to God’s ways (Rom. 8:14, 9; Gal. 5:22-23).
For the most part, reporters, photographers and editors strive to present the facts without bias. But they are, after all, just human beings. Despite sincere intentions, journalists sometimes make mistakes. All people are different. Each person has his or her own set of internal rules of right and wrong. No two people completely agree on every issue and concern in life. Journalists are no different.
At their best, reporters can report the facts and strive to get them straight. At their worst, reporters are biased and slanted, and have agendas—just like all other human beings.
Sometimes, whether consciously or subconsciously, journalists do taint the news to fit their political views. They do sometimes turn fiction into fact in order to reach a “higher truth.” They sometimes fail to ask the right questions or follow up on leads. Some even fail to ask questions at all, choosing instead to jump to conclusions.
And a few journalists plagiarize and lie, because they lack character—they are either too lazy or too morally weak to do the right thing.
In light of this, can you trust the news?
Yes. But only with watchful eyes—and only if you know what to look for.
Herbert W. Armstrong, founder and editor-in-chief of The Real Truth magazine’s predecessor, The Plain Truth, wrote about the kind of news you can trust. This news speaks of declining world conditions, political upheaval, terrorism, religious confusion, cultural degeneration, broken families, unhappy marriages, escalating divorces, sexually transmitted diseases, drug-resistant plagues—the list goes on.
But it also speaks of GOOD news—training up healthy, happy children—understanding the BIG PICTURE and the purpose of life—finding the way to lasting peace and real joy—living happy, abundant lives.
This good news, as Mr. Armstrong often wrote and spoke about, was “reported” almost 2,000 years ago. It points to a future time of universal peace and prosperity, which mankind has never known. That good news is the gospel of the soon-coming kingdom of God. The word gospel literally means “good news”—and is the only news you can fully trust!
If you would like to learn more, read our free booklet Which Is the True Gospel?
You may also wish to listen to The World to Come program, presented by David C. Pack, editor-in-chief of The Real Truth magazine.