The Liars’ Club

What happened when writers took the truth into their own hands

“I’m such an idiot, such a fake,” sobbed the voice on the phone. It was Patricia Smith, my former colleague at the Sun-Times, thrust into national disgrace this year when it was revealed she’d fabricated dozens of her columns in the Boston Globe.

Of course she was drunk. “I had a career as a columnist at a big city newspaper, and I tossed it away to be a poet!” she shouted. “A fucking poet! Do you know what poetry pays? It pays diddly!” Then she was weeping again and blowing her nose, loudly, like a truck horn.

Nah, not really. Never happened. Just made it up. And you know what? It was fun. Easy too–especially compared to, say, actually trying to track down the actual Smith and actually getting her to sit down for an actual interview.

Not that Smith would talk to me–she didn’t like me and could barely bring herself to speak to me when she was plying her shtick in Chicago. Since her fall from grace, she’s spoken on the record only with the most pliant writer friends, people who could be counted on to praise her dress, her hair, her dignity–and then gloss over the unpleasant specifics of her lapses.

Smith was only the most vexing journalist sinner this year–the year Jimmy Olsen morphed into Pinocchio. That 25-year-old wunderkind from Highland Park, Stephen Glass, kicked things off last June when it was revealed that he’d fabricated numerous articles for the New Republic, which sprawled insensate before him like a drunken slut at a frat party and let him do whatever he wanted without complaint. It took a savvy on-line editor at the Forbes Digital Tool Web site–O, delicious irony–to do the minimal phone work needed to toss a rock at Glass’s house of lies.

As Glass watched his pretty new career shatter, Cable News Network and Time celebrated their journalistic union with the stillbirth of a deformed little lump of error: their report claiming that the military used nerve gas on U.S. defectors in Vietnam in Operation Tailwind. The report, aired during the premiere of NewsStand, seemed based entirely on deciding tear gas was nerve gas and on vigorously ignoring interview after interview with people who insisted it never happened.

The result was, if not straight deception, then an act of such willful ignorance that it became something worse. Time disavowed the report almost instantly, as if the magazine had prepared the apology in advance.

In the ugly aftermath someone coined the phrase “Peter Arnett defense.” TV newsreaders are traditionally accused of being mere attractive talking heads, so typically they claim deep involvement in the news-gathering process. But Arnett, who narrated the Operation Tailwind report, broke new ground by arguing that he’d had nothing whatsoever to do with the script shoved into his hands, and thus was not responsible for whether it was true, untrue, or somewhere in between. He kept his job, if not his credibility.

Glass and Operation Tailwind were merely prelude to Smith. After all the warnings and second chances she’d been given, her self-destruction seemed stupefyingly deliberate–it was as if she’d slowly emptied a gas can over her head and lit a match.

Smith’s self-immolation touched off the career of her older colleague at the Globe, Mike Barnicle. For years Boston Magazine had jabbed at him because of the dubious, hard-to-find-in-the-physical-world characters populating his columns, but the glare from the Smith explosion finally showed his lapses in stark relief. Even then it seemed he would be permitted to stay, as big advertisers came to his defense. But he was caught swiping jokes from a George Carlin book and then lying about never having read it–or lying about having read it, since someone produced a tape of him reviewing the book on television. Barnicle’s livelihood went up–FWOOOOM–like an oil-storage tank in a Bruce Willis movie.

Globe editor Matt Storin permitted both Smith and Barnicle to print their final farewells in the paper, and both used the opportunity to reprise the very crimes for which they were being dismissed. Smith offered up the obvious fiction of herself as a child being read the newspaper at bedtime by her father, claiming it instilled within her a love of journalism. One assumes that this lovely little ritual–were it true–would also have engendered some inclination toward honesty. Maybe dad didn’t make it clear that the stories were in the paper because they really happened.

Barnicle tap-danced around one of the columns that got him canned, a sob story about kindness and money passing between the families of white and black hospital patients. He claimed a faulty memory and good intentions. “The use of parables was not a technique I invented,” he wrote, as if Aesop were to blame.

At least Barnicle, having done his swan song, crawled off to nurse his wounds. And Glass had had the sense to burrow deep the moment scandal struck and, as far as anyone can tell, stay there. Maybe he’s wandered to the South Seas like Lord Jim, searching for that distant corner of the world where his ill fame isn’t known.

But Smith, proud as a toddler smearing feces on the wall, was everywhere–onstage in Boston, at the Cultural Center in Chicago–declaiming about how misunderstood she was, about how she was, again, a victim who would nevertheless hold her head high. Adoring standing-room-only audiences snapped their fingers and projected waves of love and understanding.

Smith’s touching, dad-read-to-me tale was quickly eclipsed by another obvious fiction. Trolling for sympathy, she told the New Yorker she was so embarrassed by her fuckup that she sat around with a gun barrel in her mouth, contemplating suicide. I particularly savored the detail that it was a gun bought on the street, which she no doubt added lest some enterprising real reporter be tempted to pull registration records to show that she doesn’t own a gun. A good liar has to think about that sort of thing ahead of time.

Smith mocked, in verse, a reporter who held a “cheap tape recorder in my face” to ask how she felt. I guess the reporter was just supposed to make it up. But there was no need. Smith explored her depths so completely no possible emotion was left out. She felt humiliated. She felt proud. She felt weak, strong, happy, sad, up, down. She stood up tall and attacked the very idea that newspaper columns should have a kind of accuracy. “Can’t you see that the heat surrounding a word tells you how true it is?” she said onstage in Boston. In other words, if you shout “Fire!” with enough conviction in a crowded theater, then the place really is burning.

The nonapologies from Smith and Barnicle point to a core problem underlying this entire mess: lax editors. After everything went kablooey, why would Globe editor Storin let them print such disingenuous justifications? A fit of kindness heretofore unknown in professional journalism?

No, just the carelessness that created the situation in the first place. Writers, like anyone else, can get tired and lazy over time. It takes effort and discipline on the part of their editors to keep up the pressure for quality, particularly if the writer gains a bit of stature and can bite back. It takes gumption to walk into Mr. Weepy Nostalgia’s office and say that tomorrow’s column is recycled crap; it’s unpleasant to tell Ms. Political Insider that her day’s offering is half self-indulgent spoodle, half rehash from last week’s Daily Mail, and perhaps she might consider flopping her hands onto the keyboard and actually doing a little work next time.

So much easier just to shrug and watch C-SPAN with the sound off, to go to lunch and hope the writer decides on his or her own to do better tomorrow. Barnicle was suspect for years. Smith too. Storin, who used to edit the Sun-Times, knew that when Smith was in Chicago she’d made up a review of an Elton John concert she never attended. In fact, she did it here on his watch, two weeks after he’d started work. He tolerated it then, and after crawling off to edit the scab Daily News and then the Globe, he took Smith along, for reasons mysterious, clapping like a circus seal and shrugging off the warning alarms and whistles as they sounded.

Of course, Storin isn’t the only lazy editor out there. Look at the New Republic and consider that not all the magazines Stephen Glass wrote for were forced to kneel on a rail and issue apologies for his fabrications. Magazines like Rolling Stone that take the trouble to fact-check were able to extract real stories from the little faker. That the New Republic ran piece after piece packed with shrieking, incredible details–details any blockhead would have suspected, details two phone calls would have uncovered as imaginary–boggles the mind and indicts the magazine much more than the kid who duped it. “The First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ” indeed.

Reality is far better than anything Patricia Smith can imagine. There are real people in Boston infinitely more interesting than the stock characters she cooked up in the back of a coffeehouse, but she couldn’t pry her ass out of the chair and go find them. She calls that art–fine.

In every profession there are a few who just don’t get it. Accountants who don’t understand they aren’t supposed to steal money. Manufacturers who don’t realize they aren’t supposed to water down the apple juice. Cops who don’t realize they aren’t supposed to break the law. They too babble all sorts of excuses–their families! their good intentions!–when their deeds are brought to light. There’s always a reason.

But the excuses don’t change the few, simple rules that were put in place because they’re necessary to keep the profession going: You can’t steal stuff. You can’t make stuff up. In my first paragraph the sentence “Of course she was drunk” was inspired by a sentence that ran in a humor piece in the New Yorker a couple of months ago. I stuck it in because it fit well there, and I liked the idea of including a thread of plagiarism in the moral shroud I was weaving. Artsy.

But I couldn’t even borrow three simple words–“she was drunk”–and the idea for a wicked zing without mentioning it here. That’s because of the conviction, among real reporters, that once you start decorating your work with other people’s sentences it’s a quick slide down the slope to swiping George Carlin jokes and imagining cancer patients.

That’s why, in case Smith et al are still wondering what the fuss was about, the profession stomped on their necks so hard. People distrust journalists enough as it is. We don’t need to encourage them. Besides, it’s a good job, even if you follow the rules. Why should we let a few losers foul the nest?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Archer Prewitt.