There's a lot of talk about lying these days. As the presidential election creeps ever closer, Obama and Romney take turns daily calling the other guy a liar and much worse. But you expect that from politicians. Unfortunately, the lying has increasingly popped up in the worlds of journalism and literature. The latest controversy is swirling around author Jonah Lehrer, who resigned from his staff writer position at The New Yorker after admitting he invented Bob Dylan quotes in his new, ironically-titled book Imagine: How Creativity Works.
Lehrer was found out by Michael Moynihan of Tablet Magazine, which published an article about Lehrer's made-up quotes, and indeed, Lehrer admitted lying when initially confronted by Moynihan. He's hardly alone in the literary sin bin: Just a few hours ago, Fareed Zakaria of CNN was suspended after an article he wrote for Time magazine on gun control plagiarized from an article in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore.
And of course, there are many authors and journalists who have been disgraced by their actions either plagiarizing others or straight out making up shit: James Frey, Mike Barnicle, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair. What I don't understand is why they do it. What makes a respected journalist or author risk their livelihood for a juicier story or a better quote? Especially when they know that what they're doing is wrong and if and when it gets out, they're screwed.
Recently, I listened to the episode of This American Life that featured monologist Mike Daisey talking about his trip to a Chinese factory that produced parts for Apple products. The episode featured excerpts of Daisey's one-man show "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" and was one of the most popular This American Life episodes...until the show later retracted the episode after it was discovered Daisey had fabricated entire characters and quotes. TAL ran an entire show dedicated to the retraction and digging into why Daisey did it and it was fascinating, if often painful, listening. Host Ira Glass apologized early and often for letting Daisey's journalistic miscues make the air, but to me, the most interesting part was hearing Daisey himself try to explain why he made up facts. Even as he admitted to fabricating huge chunks of the story, Daisey refused to concede that he had intentionally done anything wrong. Ultimately, it came down to what made for a more compelling story--and it was compelling, how he described underaged workers at the FoxConn plant and his tale of workers who had been poisoned by toxic chemicals in the plant (all of it untrue).
Sometimes the lure of a good story is too much, even if it's one you just made up. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her Washington Post article about an 8-year-old heroin addict. Only problem was, she invented the whole thing and the truth came out just two days after she won the Pulitzer.
Back in my days as a newspaper reporter, I never felt the need to make anything up. Although an intern at the paper was sent packing after she was found to have invented quotes for some silly feature she wrote. We were all shocked at the time. Another time, we realized a reporter for a rival paper was basically rewriting our articles a few days after our stories ran because he didn't attend the same meetings we did. He didn't put a byline on the articles. We were outraged, but there wasn't a whole lot we could do about it.
Twenty-two years later, I'm a hell of a lot more cynical about stuff like that. People have lied since the beginning of time. There's no reason to think they're going to stop any time soon.