Fakery in American Journalism





Mr. Fleming's latest book is The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Basic Books, 2003). He is a member of the board of directors of HNN.

The uproar over Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who was exposed as a man who made up details and descriptions and embellished stories with false quotes, has omitted one salient fact. The journalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries would have shrugged off Mr. Blair's inventions with a goodnatured wink. "Faking it" -- the tradition of manufacturing facts to enliven stories -- or even describing things that never happened -- has a long tradition in American newspapers.

On January 1, 1776, the Pennsylvania Packet, a Philadelphia newspaper, published a list of the remarkable occurrences of 1775. One of them occured on April 19, when "two thousand veteran British soldiers were attacked and defeated by 300 peasants, and were saved from destruction by running 40 miles in one day." The American "peasants" also known as minutemen, actually numbered 3763, and were an embryo army that had been training for war for almost a year under officers who had seen action aplenty in the French and Indian War. Sarcely one in twenty of the British "veterans" had been in a battle before.

After the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, a reporter for the New York Herald, the biggest and most powerful newspaper in America, filed a story describing how victorious southern soldiers had bayonetted wounded northern troops who were trying to surrender, and in one case chopped off a dead Union soldier's head and used it for a football. None of these things happened.

In the runup to the Spanish American War Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, and his fabulous clone, William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, collaborated to produce reams of imaginary events demonizing the Spanish rulers of Cuba as brutal butchers. They succeeded in inflaming the American public mind and Congress declared war on Spain over President William McKinley's objections.

After the war ended, Pulitzer surveyed his paper's record and got an attack of conscience. He ordered the top editors to gather the staff of the World and tell them that henceforth, truthfulness would be the paper's policy. He added a memorandum in which he said it was time for the World to become "a normal newspaper again." But the tradition of faking it was by no means extinguished in the minds and hearts of numerous reporters and editors.

After World War I, the editor of the World, Frank I. Cobb, confided an electrifying story about Woodrow Wilson to two writer friends. Cobb said he had been summoned to the White House on the night of April 1-2, 1917, the eve of Wilson's speech callling for war, to discuss the decision. Cobb did not get there until 1 a.m. and they talked into the dawn.

Cobb said Wilson told him he had "considered every loophole" to escape going to war but each time Germany deliberately blocked them with some "new outrage." Then Wilson supposedly began to talk about the impact the war would have on America. "He said when a war got going it was just war and there weren't two kinds of it," Cobb said. "It required illiberalism at home to reinforce the men at the front. We couldn't fight Germany and maintain the ideals of government that all thinking men shared. He said we would try but it would be too much for us."

"Once lead this people into war," Wilson continued, "and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be ruthless and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter the very fibre of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street."

"He thought the Constitution would not survive it," Cobb said. "That free speech and the right of assembly would go. He said a nation couldn't put its strength into a war and keep its head level; it had never been done."

"'If there's any alternative, for God's sake let's take it,' he [Wilson] exclaimed. Well I couldn't see any, and I told him so," Cobb concluded.

It is a moving scene. But there are grave reasons for doubting it happened on the night of April 1-2, or any other night. There is no record in the White House log of Cobb visiting Wilson at 1 a.m. on April 2. Many historians, including this one, think the whole thing was a piece of clever fakery, to make Woodrow Wilson look like a tragic figure. Cobb's motive? The war had made a mess of America, exactly as his pseudo Wilson preedicted.

The ultimate piece of fakery in the Wilson White House was yet to come. After Wilson collapsed with a cerebral thrombosis in the fall of 1919 while on a speaking tour to sell his version of the League of Nations to the people, one of the great coverups in American history began. Mrs. Wilson and the president's doctor, Admiral Cary Grayson, concealed Wilson's condition. For over a month he was in a virtual vegetable state.

By 1920, Wilson had made a partial recovery, though White House chief usher Ike Hoover, who saw him every day, opined in his memoirs that intellectually he had shrunk from a giant to a pygmy. Mrs. Wilson, deluded by love, began to think the crippled president could and should run for a third term. She invited Louis Seibold, who covered the White House for the New York World, to visit for an interview. Delighted by a chance to get on the front page, Seibold collaborated shamelessly with the scam.

The reporter told how delighted he was to find the president almost his old self. He joshed with him about running a footrace in a month or two; he would give the president a modest handicap because of his "slight limp." (In fact, Wilson's whole left side remained paralyzed.) Seibold was soon telling even more blatant lies. He said he saw Wilson "transact the most important functions of his office with his old time decisiveness, method and keenness of intellectual appraisement." In fact, Wilson's attention span was about sixty seconds. The reporter claimed to have watched Wilson sign a document "with the same copper plate signature." In fact, his signature was an indecipherable scribble. Seibold even maintained Wilson was functioning better as president than before his "illness" because now he had more time to deliberate on matters.

Admiral Grayson chimed in with a plethora of lies about Wilson's amazing recovery. The hoary tradition of faking it was still alive and well in Louis Seibold's corner of the New York World's newsroom. For a final irony, the interview won Seibold a 1921 Pulitzer Prize.

Reporters are human. Jayson Blair's sad story reveals that faking it remains a temptation in the newsroom. The New York Times is to be congratulated for the forthright way they have confronted this latest eruption of a potentially fatal media disease.


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Joe Glab - 6/15/2003

The "media" is no more an organ of the State than any other industry in America that benefits from a non-accountable government agency protecting a federally-mandated cartel.

Think of it this way, would you rather eek out a living as an honest news source, struggling for weeks to acquire and verify facts only to have your story ignored because it is too long overdue and Boobus Americanus no longer cares? Or would you rather relax and simply run whatever the administration feeds you and become wealthy? Pick one.

This is a partnership we're talking about. They exist in many industries. Regardless of what you are told to think by right-wing thinktanks, the top five tobacco companies who signed onto the cartel now enjoy a permanent 95% matket share. If some young upstart, depsite adhering to new tobacco regulation, still manages to acquire substantial market share, the the entire weight and might of the federal government will crush them back down to size. It sucks to NOT be one of the top five but the parallel between tobacco and the media outlets are very real, indeed.


Shannon Taylor - 6/15/2003

It is wrong when a reporter with his own agenda reports stories that are fake, what is much much worse is when the president reports stories he knows are lies and repeats them to Congress and the American people in his State of the Union address, and then our country goes to war. This kind of fabrication should be grounds for impeachemnt.


John Kipper - 6/15/2003

Excuse me, but this is precisely what any rational reader would gather from your post. Allow me to restate your arguement as bullet points:
*You read an article about atrocities committed in a vicisous civil war and were sickened by it, as any compassionate human being would be.
*You were dismayed to discover that the author fabricated specific evidence, although you beleive that atrocities took place, as do I.
*Your faith in the credibility of of the author is shaken, you cannot believe her. I am with you so far.

Here is where we part company. While I realize that the false personalization of the arguement weakens Menchu's case, it does not negate the fact of the political mass murders. Similarly, the natural tendency of a hypothetical person whose father was killed by the regime to exaggerate the scope of the horror perpetuated by Saddam does not negate the existence of many mass graveyards filled with the victims of his police state, the facts of the Kurds gassed by his military, the sadistic instruments of torture in his jails and his misuse of "oil for dollars" money that resulted in the deaths of innocent Iraqi children.

It is not I who is being intellectually dishonest here. It seems to me that you are using an example of betrayed trust by a political observer, in another conflict, on another continent, in another decade, to question verifiable facts on the ground in Iraq. You beg the question: who did kill, gas, torture and starve all of those people?




Joey G - 6/14/2003

That's not what I was talking about and you know it.

Your attempt to hijack my point to strengthen your weak argument is intellectually dishonest.


The Senator - 6/14/2003

Elia Markel is absolutely correct in his analysis of the NYT. It has always been hard Left, representing the atheistic and pro-big central government, socialist, and even Communist views of its Eastern European and Soviet Union emigre owners and many of its readers. These people did not understand, did not respect, and have systematically UNDERmined the American system of government, which was constructed by Christians, and structured after the Presbyterian system of church government. At that time, 97.5% of Americans were Protestant Christians, 2% Catholic, and .5% Jewish. ALL of those faiths believe in the One, True God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. 67% of the Protestants were Calvinists/Presbyterian. Ours WAS, at least originally, a REAL democratic republic in stucture, if not in fact, NOT a phony "peoples democratic republic" falsely proclaimed by virtually EVERY murderous and destructive atheistic Communist totalitarian military dictatorship in the world, which were responsible for the deaths by murder and starvation of nearly 200 million people that we KNOW about in the bloody, athestic, and murderous 20th Century. This number does not include the HUNDREDS of millions of those who were conceived who were murdered by abortion (which the Times also furiously ADVOCATES), or the billion or more not conceived as a result of artificial contraception (which the Times also ADVOCATES). I admit freely that the de-Christianized West was complicit both by omission and by co-mission in many of those deaths or non-existent people, tragically. The Times has worked furiously for nearly a century to change America into an atheistic totalitarian dictatorship that they themseles would dominate and control or greatly influence. Their infamous case of the New York Times v. Sullivan strips every citizen running for public office at any level in America of his or her normal protection by the libel laws from viscious and untrue and Left-politically-motivated libel by the Times and any other publication. They all have total immunity. No lawyer will take such a case for the person libeled. The democratic rights of the voters and citizens have also been stripped away, allowing full totalitarian control of American politics by the so-called "press". Anyone who opposes their agenda---and all the major newspapers and network television are Left-wing---can be attacked (or sometimes worse---totally ignored), thereby emasculating American political debate. Even Ralph Nader agrees with me, as he was visciously mistreated by the mainstream "press" and then barred from the Presidential debates. Both the Times' "news" (what a sick joke!) pages as well as their editorial pages have for decades supported the most murderous and destructive political and military dictators of the 20th century---Stalin, Mao, and Castro are just 3 murderous dictators about which there is absolutely no question that they did so. I really hate the Times. I do not believe the Times. No one else should either. I am a broken-hearted citizen of America, praying for her restoration. Perhaps God will be so gracious. II Chron. 7:14. PS I should disclose that I was a reporter, columnist, copy editor, and headline writer for the Maryland University campus newspaper, the "Diamondback", from whence Jayson Blair sadly emanated. 40+ years ago when I worked there several hours a day for no pay for 4 years, NOTHING like this ever happened---or COULD have happened there. We were liberal, and advocated for good causes, but we were both honest and professional---UNlike Jayson. We are so ashamed of him as well as of Howell Raines and his destructive former employer, the Times. Thank God for the power of public opinion, as Walter Lippman always pointed out. Heads will also roll at the "DBK" and the UM Journalism Dept. PPS I was in East Germany and East Berlin in 1959 and 1960, even before the real "Berlin Wall" was put up! I saw the brutal face of atheistic and therefore murderous Communism in the raw, both there and in Hungary in 1960, just 4 years after the 1956 uprising against the "God-damned Russkies", a phrase we heard throughout the East Bloc from the local citizens. I am one of the very few Americans still alive who was in Budapest then, and can therefore testify from first-hand personal experience. Our downtown hotel room faced the offices of the Hungarian Communist Party "newspaper" (actually a propaganda organ), their equivalent of the Soviet's "Pravda" (or "Truth"---how Orwellian! JUST like the Times!). We could still see the pockmarks of the freedom fighters' small arms and the Soviet Army's .30 and .50 caliber equivalent machine gun bullets in the stone exterior of that building as they variously seized and lost control of that building as they fought over it. I have a semi-photographic memory in color, and am running color "movies" of that scene in my mind, even as I type this comment. It has obviously made a strong and life-long impression. And then the US Embassy refused to let us see Cardinal Mindzenty, whom these Communist thugs had kidnapped and tortured, even though he was the Roman Catholic Primate of all Hungary. Atheists and Communists JUST DON'T CARE ABOUT PEOPLE---JUST like the Times.


Elliot - 6/14/2003

Was FDR functionial when he ran fourth time?


John Kipper - 6/14/2003

"I mean, if I were Iraqi and Saddam killed my father, I might well lie and tell the Americans that I saw Saddam kill thousands"

And then I might guide the Americans to a mass graveyard, where over 15,000 were hurriedly buried, and lend credibility to my story.


Joey G - 6/14/2003

The degree to which the media is biased in favor of oligarchy is remarkable. The degree of hypocricy the media showed in coverage of the Clinton witch hunts is stunning. The soft puffy coverage of George W. Bush is despicable. The right wing think tanks and part time media "gnomes" are many,well paid and stealthy. The Republican manipulation of the intellectual laziness of Americans is unprincipled and low.

But the "media" are not a propaganda machine. They are craven and cowardly and increasingly solopsistic, but not what the Nazis had: a group of people dedicated to one cause. In other words, Goebells would doubtlessly prefer his native press.

Do you really think if Dick Cheney told Jim Lehrer to jump, Lehrer would say: "how high?"

Well, Lehrer might... :)


Joey G - 6/14/2003

After witnessing the Times' pathetic descent into rank tabloidism during the Clinton witch hunts, I vote for 2: Desperate effort.


Joey G - 6/14/2003

Then let us hope that the Internet remains the open public resource it currently is, rather then becoming the exclusive property of large corporations, like broadcast media has become.

Hope? Hell, I'm gonna fight for it!

Oh, and Mr Kriz's "ravings" are accurate. The major media are quite biased in favor of the right wing, or at least the right wing of the rich.



Joey G - 6/14/2003

The only true objectivity is the description of material fact, physical events, time, place, mass, energy; physics.

Any human affairs are intrinsically subjective. Good, bad, fair, rich, poor, left, right... all subjective.

The "show both sides to an issue" mantra is fatuous becuase it presumes all issues have exactly two sides, and that each sides argument is sufficient on it's own. This is demonstrably false.

I tire of the media game of presenting "both sides of the issue," while a doe eyed moderater allows one or the other to spin, twist,and distort publically verifiable knowledge without any correction, all in the name of "balance" and "fairness." This is cowardly journalism.

Then again, isn't corporate journalism cowardly by definition, since no one ever got rich by swimming against the stream?



Joey G - 6/14/2003

Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu told a story about her teenage brother being horribly tortured and killed by Guatamalen right wing paramilitaries. The story really shook me up, I couldn't get it out of my mind for months and it made my heart sick.

Later, she confessed to inventing the story. The invention was justified, she said, because events just like it occured regularily . I've no doubt that plenty of gruesome things happened in Guatamalla and that there really were right wing death squads, but being lied to by this hero made me skeptical of all such stories.

I have a friend who supports the Invasion/Liberation of Iraq because of some similar horror stories. I'm sure Saddam really did torture and kill some people in horrible ways, but how many of these stories are true and how many are exaggerations or outright lies told by people with an agenda? I mean, if I were Iraqi and Saddam killed my father, I might well lie and tell the Americans that I saw Saddam kill thousands.




John - 6/8/2003

Steve--you need to add some bran to your diet!


Ralph E. Luker - 6/7/2003

Charles, Both you and Elia are on to something very important here: the peril of dismissing the unattainable ideal of objectivity. It remains to be seen whether the publisher of the New York Times really got that message or whether the resignations of the two top editors was simply dumping more baggage in a desperate effort to save the ship.


Elia Markell - 6/6/2003

As Thomas Fleming points out, fakery in journalism is as old as journalism. However, something new has entered the scene, something Mr. Fleming does not mention in his desire to "congratulate" the Times for its "forthright way" of responding to the crisis, and something that makes Mr. Kriz's type of ravings about right-wing media conspiracies even more lunatic and self-contradicting than they would already otherwise be.

That something is this medium right here -- the Internet.

Institutions like the Times are dinosaurs. The Internet has hit them like an asteriod. Mr. Kritz can go on and on about Fox and the Washington Times, but they were not all that less cumbersome than ABC, CBS, and NBC in unmasking the outrages of the NYTs, whose leftward lurch was turned into an all-out hundred yard dash under Raines. It was the likes of Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, Instapundit and a hundred other independents who felled the giant. Testimony not to some feverishly imagined right-wing conspiracy (most of these guys are actually various stripes of libertarian), but to the incredible OPENNESS and the UNCONTROLLABLE FREEDOM of our media now (as opposed to paranoia about its oligopolisitc or monopolistic ownership structure).

Jayson Blair was only the very small tip of a very large iceberg, into which Mr. Raines steered his Titanic by listing hard to port.


Charles V. Mutschler - 6/6/2003

The two editors who left the _New York Times_ may or may not have been invited by their employer to hand in their resignations, but it raises an issue which might be worthy of more discussion. Way back when I took high school journalism, a few points which were hammered home to us by our journalism teacher: (1) News stories are as impartial and objective as it is humanly possible to make them. Give both sides of an issue an opportunity to be fairly heard in news stories, especially when covering controversial issues. (2) Opinions go in the editorial columns. (3) Don't mix the two.

The _New York Times_, which has called itself a paper of record, seems to have largely moved away from that stance which my journalism teacher would have recognized. One might argue that the editorial policy of the past couple of years was less like a paper of record, and more like an opinion journal, with news coverage shaped to meet the editorial politics of the publication.

For example, note the handling of the Bellesile fraud. After a high profile, very positive review of _Arming America_, the _New York Times_ did not do much to admit its error, or retract the review. Other newspapers in Britain noticed the one-sided coverage of the women's rallies for membership in the Augusta golf club, and even made the point that the paper's editors killed stories that tried to give the golf club's perspective, because they did not fit the new editorial policy of crusading for progressive causes. (my paraphrase) Finally comes the Blair situation, when a reporter engages in repeated misconduct, and when his immediate superiors complain, the men at the top refuse to address the matter. Columnists in _Newsweek_ and elsewhere, while noting that 'race may have been a factor' seem to have tacitly admitted that the Howell Raines policy was to overlook professional misconduct in reporters who had the desired political / philosophical outlook in their stories.

The unhappiness of many _Times_ staffers, and large numbers of the public suggest that a significant portion of the public still subscribes to the view of journalism expressed by my journalism teacher three decades ago. They expect newspapers of record to treat the news as news and with some degree of objectivity. Opinion journals, be they left or right, are something different. One does not expect _The Nation_ to sing praises of President Reagan's economic policy any more than _The National Review_ to heap praise on President Clinton's domestic policy. the fact that the _New York Times_ devoted four pages to explaing what went wrong in the Blair case, and now in the departure of the old editorial team suggests that the owners of the _New York Times_ finally 'got it.' The message they got was that the public expects some semblance of objectivity in a paper of record.

What lessons are there for historians? Perhaps it is time to re-visit the old theory of objectivity. The search for a usable history seems to have come to the same end in the case of _Arming America_ as it has in the _New York Times_. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the idea of objectivity as an ideal (unattainable in an absolute sense, to be sure) for which historians, as well as journalists, should strive.

Thanks for reading.

Charles V. Mutschler


Charles V. Mutschler - 6/6/2003

The two editors who left the _New York Times_ may or may not have been invited by their employer to hand in their resignations, but it raises an issue which might be worthy of more discussion. Way back when I took high school journalism, a few points which were hammered home to us by our journalism teacher: (1) News stories are as impartial and objective as it is humanly possible to make them. Give both sides of an issue an opportunity to be fairly heard in news stories, especially when covering controversial issues. (2) Opinions go in the editorial columns. (3) Don't mix the two.

The _New York Times_, which has called itself a paper of record, seems to have largely moved away from that stance which my journalism teacher would have recognized. One might argue that the editorial policy of the past couple of years was less like a paper of record, and more like an opinion journal, with news coverage shaped to meet the editorial politics of the publication.

For example, note the handling of the Bellesile fraud. After a high profile, very positive review of _Arming America_, the _New York Times_ did not do much to admit its error, or retract the review. Other newspapers in Britain noticed the one-sided coverage of the women's rallies for membership in the Augusta golf club, and even made the point that the paper's editors killed stories that tried to give the golf club's perspective, because they did not fit the new editorial policy of crusading for progressive causes. (my paraphrase) Finally comes the Blair situation, when a reporter engages in repeated misconduct, and when his immediate superiors complain, the men at the top refuse to address the matter. Columnists in _Newsweek_ and elsewhere, while noting that 'race may have been a factor' seem to have tacitly admitted that the Howell Raines policy was to overlook professional misconduct in reporters who had the desired political / philosophical outlook in their stories.

The unhappiness of many _Times_ staffers, and large numbers of the public suggest that a significant portion of the public still subscribes to the view of journalism expressed by my journalism teacher three decades ago. They expect newspapers of record to treat the news as news and with some degree of objectivity. Opinion journals, be they left or right, are something different. One does not expect _The Nation_ to sing praises of President Reagan's economic policy any more than _The National Review_ to heap praise on President Clinton's domestic policy. the fact that the _New York Times_ devoted four pages to explaing what went wrong in the Blair case, and now in the departure of the old editorial team suggests that the owners of the _New York Times_ finally 'got it.' The message they got was that the public expects some semblance of objectivity in a paper of record.

What lessons are there for historians? Perhaps it is time to re-visit the old theory of objectivity. The search for a usable history seems to have come to the same end in the case of _Arming America_ as it has in the _New York Times_. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the idea of objectivity as an ideal (unattainable in an absolute sense, to be sure) for which historians, as well as journalists, should strive.

Thanks for reading.

Charles V. Mutschler


Stephen Kriz - 6/3/2003


Thank you Mr. Fleming for an interesting historical survey of journalistic distortions. I had not heard of some of them.

May I suggest a topic for a new book? You should examine the most extensive journalistic and media propaganda machine ever devised in history. One that would make Joseph Goebbels green with envy. I am referring of course, to the right-wing media machine that spent ten years lying about Bill Clinton and his family, that spread nonsencial rumors about Iraqi soldiers dumping babies out of incubators during the first Gulf War, that helped Bush and his cronies lie about WMDs in Iraq to build a false pretense for the Second Gulf War, that continues to lie about Bush's achievements (which are really non-achievements) and perpetuates the charade that Bush is anything but a bungling, incompetent, intellectually deficient sot.

From the Washington Times to the EIB radio network to FOX News to the American Spectator to Clear Channel radio to Hearst newspapers - they have taken over the media and now with the FCC's latest oligarchic ruling, will solidify their stranglehold on the formerly free marketplace of ideas. Please note that American democracy died at roughly the same point in time. Thank you.

Steve Kriz


AnotherNYGuy - 6/2/2003

A very interesting an informative article, but I think people expect more from a newspaper today. People want to be informed and not just entertained. If most people believed that newspapers were just creative outlets for reporters, then our citizens would become even more cynical than they are now--if that's possible!


Charles V. Mutschler - 6/2/2003

It is interesting that no one seems to have picked up on the semi- light-hearted treatment of the subject that was penned by a well-known member of the media over a decade ago. Jim Lehrer, the anchor man of PBS television's "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" has written a number of novels.

In 1989 Lehrer's _Crown Oklahoma_ was published, set against the backdrop of the Watergate era. An unhappy television reporter fabricates a series of stories about a crime wave in Oklahoma, intending to expose the fraud, and subsequently publish a memoir on the business. Granted that the reasons for the media scandal in _Crown Oklahoma_ are humerous, but the questions raised about trusting the media have some edge to them - especially when watching the recent events.

Speaking of historical novels, while it's no _The Killer Angels_, Lehrer's latest novel, _No Certain Rest,_ is set in the Battle of Antietam and the more or less present.

Charles V. Mutschler

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