With all of the politically-charged talk about banning “fake news” sites, it seems appropriate to review some of the worst fake news stories pushed by mainstream media outlets. No matter how large your family gathering is this Thanksgiving, you won’t be chowing down on a turkey as big as these phony stories from A-list television shows and publications.
Walter Duranty and the Holodomor: The mother of all fake news stories must be New York Times reporter Walter Duranty helping Stalin’s Russia conceal the Holodomor from the world. Duranty helped the communists cover up one of the worst crimes against humanity ever perpetrated, the forced starvation of over 1.5 million people in Ukraine between 1932 and 1933.
This was the worst of many lies Duranty told in the service of Soviet communism. His fake news helped sell communism to impressionable people around the world and changed the course of history. It’s one of two fake news items on this list sanctified with a Pulitzer Prize, which has not been revoked despite strong calls to do so. (In essence, the Pulitzer committee insists Duranty deserves his prize for everything he wrote that wasn’t an outrageous lie.)
The New York Times institutionally refuses to condemn Duranty or acknowledge the depths of his deception, portraying him as the victim of Stalin’s “powerful and omnipresent” propaganda machine – an excuse heard again from the mainstream media in other settings over the years, when they explain how they had to play ball with horrible dictatorships in order to gain access. CNN executive Eason Jordan’s 2003 explanation for why his network concealed so much grisly news from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is a prime example.
Saturday Night Fever: Not many people realize that one of the most celebrated movies of the Seventies was based on a fake news story. The script for Saturday Night Fever was supposedly a fictionalized account of a real disco dancer’s life and times, but the author of the 1976 New York magazine story that launched the movie, Nik Cohn, eventually admitted he made it all up.
Cohn claims that he did see someone similar to the character John Travolta made famous at a disco in New York, but when he was unable to track the man down for an interview, he “conjured up the story” and “presented it as fact.” Given how popular the movie and disco culture became, this has to be counted as one of the most influential fake news stories.
Janet Cooke’s imaginary 8-year-old heroin addict: The fake news manufactured by Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke received a Pulitzer Prize, but unlike Duranty’s, it was revoked after her deception was uncovered.
In a meticulous 2016 account of Cooke’s story, Mike Sager at the Columbia Journalism Review dubbed her “the fabulist who changed journalism,” and made a compelling case for her 1980 story about “Jimmy’s World” as one of the first examples of “viral” journalism. The Post wanted a superstar young black female journalist, and Cooke delivered with a searing story about an 8-year-old heroin addict in Washington, D.C. named Jimmy, a “precious little boy” who had “needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin, brown arms.”
The story was so widely repeated, so influential, that Mayor Marion Barry’s administration began scouring the city to rescue Jimmy from his hideous guardians. They couldn’t find the boy because he didn’t exist. Cooke made the whole thing up. (When city officials asked Cooke to tell them where they could find Jimmy, she refused, and the Washington Post invoked her First Amendment right to protect her sources.)
The hoax was exposed when the Pulitzer board bent its rules to nudge Cooke’s local-news story into the national-news category, eager to bestow the very first Pulitzer Prize upon an African-American woman. Cooke submitted a resume to the Pulitzer board which included suspicious discrepancies from the resume she gave to her former employers at the Toledo Blade. When her Washington Post editors questioned her about these discrepancies, she finally confessed, “There is no Jimmy and no family. It was a fabrication. I want to give the prize back.”
Retrospectives on “Jimmy’s World” routinely describe it as a pivotal moment when journalism changed forever… except, as you’ll see below, it didn’t. Janet Cooke was just the first in a line of superstar Big Media fabulists, and her successors were much worse than she was – they fabricated more than one story, and they should have been easier to catch, given the electronic information resources available to their editors.
Another common observation about “Jimmy’s World” is that it slipped past the fact-checking and editorial layers of a major publication because everyone wanted to believe it. Cooke was given not just credit, but credibility for meaning well. The mainstream media keeps making that mistake, with both its own reporters and the political figures it covers.
Dateline NBC rigs a truck to explode: In 1993, NBC News delivered a historic public apology for staging the test crash of a General Motors pickup truck for the Dateline NBC program. The reporters wanted to demonstrate that gas could leak from the truck’s fuel tank and cause a dangerous fire after a crash, so they rigged it with explosives.
“We deeply regret we included the inappropriate demonstration in our ‘Dateline’ report. We apologize to our viewers and to General Motors. We have also concluded that unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories at NBC. That’s our new policy,” the statement declared, leading viewers with some unresolved questions about why it wasn’t their old policy, too.
Dateline NBC was far from the only example of dubious product-safety reporting. It wasn’t even the first time a vehicle was rigged to explode for a major network consumer report.
Stephen Glass: The enduring icon of fake news is Stephen Glass, whose fall from grace was chronicled in a major motion picture, Shattered Glass. The truth caught up with him in 1998, when it was discovered a great deal of the content he produced for The New Republic and other publications was wholly or partially falsified. In recent times, Glass has revealed that he repaid The New Republic, Rolling Stone, and Policy Review at least $200,000 for over forty fabricated stories.
There has been considerable soul-searching over the years about why Glass was able to fool so many editors for so long. The story that brought him down was such a ridiculous fraud – a piece about a major software firm supposedly hiring a teenage hacker who penetrated its payroll system, in which virtually every detail was invented, including the non-existent software company – that it became obvious no one was editing or fact-checking Glass in any meaningful way.
Some speculated Glass fooled so many editors because he had “wonder boy” star power and great personal charisma. Others thought it was because he understood and flattered the biases and expectations of the publications he worked for – he sold them stories they wanted to publish, surfing the early wave of “narrative” obsession that has completely consumed mainstream journalism over the past two decades. Glass invented people, organizations, and events that lived down to his publishers’ darkest expectations of every social group and profession except their own.
He was so productive, and so good at fabricating “evidence” to back up his claims, that it simply didn’t occur to his marks that he might be faking so much of his work. (A fascinating 1998 Vanity Fair account of Glass’ downfall noted that he instantly whipped up a phony website for the software company he invented for his final phony article, and drafted his brother to leave phone voice mails in the role of an imaginary company executive, when he learned fact-checkers were digging into the story.) Why generate fraudulent stories when honest reporting would have been less work?
Those are blind spots that broadly affect news consumers, and producers, to this day. Detail implies veracity, we incorrectly assume that only lazy writers would fabricate stories, and too many stories are “too good to check.”
Jayson Blair: New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was investigated by his newspaper in 2003 and accused of inventing numerous reports. He was especially prone to inventing news reports supposedly filed from other cities, while he was in fact working from his apartment in Brooklyn. However, the scandal that ultimately prompted his resignation involved accusations of plagiarism in a story he filed about the family of a soldier missing in Iraq.
The NYT conceded that Blair’s career of fabulism was a “profound betrayal of trust, and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.” Tough questions were asked about how the paper missed so many obvious signs of Blair’s mendacity, including the troubling detail that he never filed travel expenses for all the cities he was supposedly visiting.
As with Glass, it seemed as if Blair only got caught because he was trying to get caught, pushing the boundaries of trust until his deceptions could no longer be ignored – and even then, it was accusations of deception and plagiarism from other news outlets that brought him down, even though the New York Times knew his work was problematic, and he had already been given several warnings. (And, of course, everyone involved should have remembered the story of Stephen Glass, which was only five years old at the time.)
The Times’ internal investigation concluded Blair’s deceit was able to continue for so long due to “a failure of communication among senior editors; few complaints from the subjects of his articles; his savviness and his ingenious ways of covering his tracks,” and most importantly, the fact that “no one saw his carelessness as a sign that he was capable of systematic fraud.”
The latter judgment seems unfair to the editors who did see signs of systematic fraud, but were unable to get Blair terminated before his work led to one of the biggest scandals in the newspaper’s history. Other post-mortems of the Blair affair put more blame on top management for creating a toxic environment where editors were afraid to voice serious concerns.
Blair resurfaced recently with an op-ed chastising the media for… failing to fact-check Donald Trump aggressively enough during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Rathergate: The pivotal scandal of the New Media era was the pitiful end of Dan Rather’s career at CBS News – a debacle so devastating to legacy media that liberals still try to rewrite its history, every time they think nobody’s looking. Rather and his producer Mary Mapes tried to throw the 2004 election (and, in the minds of the strongest critics, America’s war effort in Iraq) with a phony story about George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service, complete with falsified documents from the 1960s that were demonstrably generated using 2004-era word processing software.
Rathergate was a tremendous blow to the credibility of CBS News, which generated a fresh tidal wave of fake news stories to protect Rather after his report on Bush was detonated by bloggers. The cover-up was bigger than the original crime, and the original crime against journalism was shocking, because even the CBS internal investigation – which many critics found redolent of whitewash – found that several production and management people allowed the story to air, even though they knew the documents could not be authenticated.
The Rathergate disaster gave us one of the most enduring phrases for discussions of media bias: “fake, but accurate.” There were some spirited arguments in 2004 and 2005 about whether falsified reporting was acceptable, provided the story held Deeper Truth.
The proto-Tea Party gun scare: There was a lot of fake reporting surrounding the Tea Party movement. One of the most memorable examples was MSNBC breathlessly warning about “white people showing up with guns” at the 2009 health care reform rallies that were precursors to the Tea Party. The segment included a great deal of hyperventilation about the alleged anger of white people over “a black person being president,” and the commensurate rise of “hate groups.”
MSNBC illustrated its claim with footage of an armed man at a rally after President Obama’s speech to the VFW in Phoenix, Arizona. The footage was edited to conceal that the man was, in fact, black.
Oceans of ink were spilled over the following years about how the health care protesters, and later the Tea Party, were dangerous. Assertions about armed racists stalking the fringes of the movement were a common element of this caricature.
George Zimmerman’s edited 911 call: The media was very interested in keeping the George Zimmerman – Trayvon Martin story hot, fresh, and outrageous, eagerly stirring a bubbling pot of racial paranoia for political and ratings reasons. A great deal of the early reporting about the Trayvon Martin shooting could be classified as “fake news.” Who can forget the widely circulated images of Martin as a baby-faced child, even though reporters knew that wasn’t what he looked like at the time of his death?
The nadir of fake news in the Zimmerman-Martin story was reached when NBC News deliberately, maliciously edited a recording of the call Zimmerman placed to 911 on the night of the February 2012 shooting, to make it sound as if Zimmerman was obsessed with Martin’s race. NBC reporters even tried to convince viewers Zimmerman used a racial epthet.
The adventures of Brian Williams: Brian Williams’ anchorman career at NBC News came to an end in 2015 after he was accused of lying about taking enemy fire while helicoptering into Iraq in 2003. The accusation came from soldiers who were aboard the helicopter. Williams told the story repeatedly, over a span of years, before he was called out.
The Rolling Stone rape hoax: The biggest recent fake news story is the appalling Rolling Stone rape hoax, which led to a successful defamation suit against the magazine, its publisher, and reporter Sabrina Erdely by an administrator at the University of Virginia.
Erdely claims she was deceived by the subject of her story, a young woman known as “Jackie” who claimed to have been gang-raped by a University of Virginia fraternity. Attorneys for U-Va. administrator Nicole Eramo argued that Erdely and Rolling Stone pushed ahead with the story even though it had numerous inconsistencies that could not be resolved, and none of the crucial details could be corroborated.
Critics saw the Rolling Stone saga as a paramount example of media narrative obsession run amok, a story the magazine wanted to be true so much that they ignored substantial evidence it wasn’t. Those critics also point to the vitriolic response leveled at anyone who correctly questioned the story after it was published. The campus rape epidemic was a story the media and its favorite politicians were very interested in covering; the presumptive victim was given endless benefit of the doubt, while the accused fraternity and its administrative enablers were granted none.
Another interesting aspect of the Rolling Stone hoax is the way details were accepted as evidence of veracity. Just as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair made their fake stories look plausible by peppering them with plenty of little details, so Jackie impressed Erdely and her magazine’s fact-checkers by providing highly detailed answers to their questions. The fact that none of those details could actually be confirmed did nothing to derail the Fake News Express.
The “fake news” freakout: The story about a professor creating an authoritative list of “fake news” websites, as widely reported across the mainstream media, was itself a fake news story. The creator of the list was a madcap left-wing activist who compiled it on a whim, not through any sort of rigorously-vetted academic process. When the list of fake news sites came under sustained criticism, it was removed from the Internet, long after generating a raft of stories on top news websites and TV shows.
As with many of the other stories above, the fake-news-site list received huge MSM coverage because it dovetailed with a Democrat political initiative – President Obama is personally involved – and it flattered both the ideological preferences and business interests of Big Media.
Furthermore, as Brian Feldman at New York Magazine points out, the much-hyped factoid about excessive “engagement” with fake election news stories is more like anecdotal evidence than hard data, overstates the actual readership of the fake stories, understates the reach of traditional news sources, and mines a great deal of alarm out of Facebook’s tendency to give opaque answers to questions about its algorithms.
Feldman suggests it would be more appropriate to view the engagement data “holistically” than as evidence that “fake news is rampant” and further proof that Facebook itself is a “black box” understood imperfectly by everyone outside the company… but that’s not nearly sensationalistic enough for Big Media, or damning enough to launch a thousand Hot Take editorials about the dangers of fake news swaying elections, is it?