H.L. Mencken of Baltimore was 19 when he “took in the massive fact that journalism is not an exact science.” An older rival reporter, rather than leave his barstool to report on a stevedore’s death, made up the facts on the spot. The three reporters drinking with him followed his lead, and since their accounts were identical, were applauded by their editors for their unusual accuracy the next morning.
Of course, what was funny in Mencken’s telling is scary in an age of real-time digital misinformation. However rare, false reporting remains the rotten underbelly of the profession, and it deserves to be a surefire career destroyer.
What brings this to mind is the fact that Charissa Thompson, a Fox sports host, admitted faking quotes when she was a so-called sideline reporter at games.
“I’ve said this before, so I haven’t been fired for saying it, but I’ll say it again: I would make up the report sometimes because, A., the coach wouldn’t come out at halftime or it was too late and I was like, I didn’t want to screw up the report, so I was like, ‘I’m just gonna make this up.’” Thompson said, according to Poynter.
Later, Thompson walked back her comments. “I have never lied about anything or been unethical during my time as a sports broadcaster,” she said, according to The New York Times. But it ignited a debate on truth in reporting and the way women journalists are treated by male coaches. (“I like your perfume,” one reportedly said to a reporter.)
On the one hand, some might dismiss this flap since it’s only about sports. A.J. Liebling, who is revered by many journalists, including New Yorker editor David Remnick, was fired by the New York Times as a young man for making up the scores to be set in agate type.
But get real: sports probably receives as much coverage as politics or anything else in this country. And even a slight ethical taint in this area can reflect on journalism in general.
“There is an assault on journalism. It is ongoing and unceasing,” David Aldridge writes in The Athletic, commenting on the episode. “It is an extension of the assault on truth by powerful people — in autocratic governments, in multinational corporations, garden-variety jerks — who don’t want to be regulated or challenged or criticized. It is a sign of journalism’s ongoing power that it is under such relentless attack by so many.”
At the risk of repeating old journalism school lectures, the reporter has a responsibility to tell the truth. That extends to admitting when the truth is not known.
For instance, having been misled earlier in the Israel-Hamas war, reporters are now saying that tapes provided by either side had not been independently corroborated. That standard should be religiously adhered to.
Sloppy reporting is one thing: then there are the people who make up entire stories. At least a few of these journalistic malefactors are driven by the need to startle and/or amuse.
Not that this makes it forgivable — or even sensible. Few writers can invent anything better than what happens in reality.
Fortunately, the journalism schools seem to be doing a good job of inculcating best practices.
Thompson will likely survive at Fox News unless advertisers start pulling out. It’s not clear if there will be a political impact.
To end on a lighter note, in that same essay, “The Synthesis of News,” Mencken admitted to making up the details of an entire naval battle in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. And it turned out he was pretty accurate.