Reviews > Culture

Peddling poppycock

Culture | Why should editors be surprised at made-up stories when they hire writers who reject objective truth?

Issue: "Middle East: No easy answers," May 31, 2003

The same week that The New York Times admitted that one of its reporters, Jayson Blair, made up or plagiarized some 36 news stories (see p. 5), another disgraced journalist published a novel about how he made up the news. The novel, The Fabulist, by Stephen Glass, demonstrates how the underlying problem in America's newsrooms is their worldview.

Mr. Glass was a 25-year-old wunderkind writing for The New Republic, once the nation's liberal journal of record (though it now sometimes surprises with an occasional hip neo-conservative position).

He once wrote an article, "Peddling Poppy" (June 9, 1997), in which he told about the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ. This, in his words, is "a circuit church run by a handful of evangelicals who hold that Bush is the reincarnation of Christ."

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Since his editors evidently knew nothing about evangelicals-who would never believe in reincarnation, let alone the deity of a president-they let this howler pass. Apparently, it accorded with their own ignorance and bigotry so they never questioned the story's authenticity.

In a later story, "All Wet" (Feb. 16, 1998), Mr. Glass again took a shot at Christians. He told about a group called Truth in Science, a supposed Christian organization that rejected global warming. He wrote that the group issued a press release, which he quoted: "Today God stuck out His tongue at the environmentalists.... He proved that it will be warm or cold at His discretion."

Another time he covered a Conservative Political Action Conference, embellishing his account with descriptions of these staunch Republicans trolling for sex and snorting cocaine.

Mr. Glass was caught only when he wrote about a conference of the National Assembly of Hackers, something he completely made up. Computer hacking was apparently a subject his editors cared about, so they caught him red-handed.

Now, Mr. Glass has written a novel about what really happened. Mr. Glass had been writing fiction that presented itself as being true. Now he is presenting what was true as a work of fiction. In an introductory note, he says that some may consider the tale to be "just one more lie." "On one level," he admits, "it is."

That is to say, it is a postmodern novel. Postmodernists believe that all truth is nothing more than a construction. What people believe to be true-religions, ideologies, moralities-are all cultural or personal constructions. There really is no essential difference between truth and fiction. Thus, postmodernist fiction writers purposefully blur the boundaries between truth and fiction, casting doubt on them both.

G.K. Chesterton observed that if you have dinner with someone who says that he does not believe in traditional morality, you would do well to count the silver after he leaves. Editors interviewing prospective reporters might remember to ask whether they believe in objective truth. Otherwise, the editors should not be surprised to find their news stories to be nothing more than "constructions."

Is the even bigger scandal at The New York Times simply a matter of a young journalist taking what he learned at college seriously? One might suspect so, but then again, Mr. Blair only said that he graduated from the University of Maryland. This turned out to be another one of his lies.

The reason the Times is taking these revelations so hard is that it is a bastion of modernist journalism. Its editors believe in facts and objectivity, with a high view of expertise. This is why its editors are so angst-ridden to learn that one of their reporters had been fabricating important stories.

But the Times editors have unwittingly been infected by postmodernism. You don't have to make up facts to construct a story. You can do that by selecting some facts while ignoring others, or by spinning facts in a particular direction. In its coverage of the Iraq War, abortion, homosexuality, and Republican policies, the so-called objective news stories in The New York Times tend to be close echoes of its left-wing editorial pages.

And in its aggressive affirmative-action policy-which gave a pass to Mr. Blair, an African-American, even after his fabrications became known-the editors were also embracing postmodernism, which holds that since truth is culturally constructed, fairness demands cultural diversity.

Diversity would indeed be a good thing for the Times. But in the canons of postmodern political correctness, diversity has to do with skin color, rather than diversity of ideas. People are supposed to look different but think alike. A true concern for diversity would look for conservatives, evangelicals, pro-lifers, and even the occasional Republican to throw into the mix of liberal modernists and liberal postmodernists.

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