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By News-Journal’s Pierre Tristam

We’re living through fabulist times, which shouldn’t be confused with fabulous times. The two words are next-door neighbors in the dictionary but have as much in common as George W. Bush and George Carlin. The first makes stuff up like Zane Grey on speed, the other deconstructs it with punch lines. Carlin has a glut of material to work with these days because from the president on down, fabulism is everyone’s branding iron of choice. Corporations invent profits. Big oil companies invent big oil deposits. The military fakes heroic feats and global alliances. The Treasury fakes impending surpluses. Researchers fake data. Employers fake time-clocks. Employees fake illnesses. Insurers fake coverage. Priests fake trust. Entertainment passes off for fact, propaganda passes off for news and advertisers begin to look like truth-tellers. Is it any wonder that the nation’s big news media have produced some of the biggest fabulists of them all?

I’m referring to Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. At The New York Times, Blair fabricated and plagiarized national stories by the dozen, most notably about the Washington, D.C., sniper and Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who — to be fair to Blair — was the inspiration for compulsive fabrication media-wide. At USA Today, Kelley took his fabrications global, inventing Egyptian and Pakistani terrorists, a Starsky and Hutch-like hunt of Osama bin Laden, Cuban exiles a-drowning, and the flash-portrait of a suicide bomber just before he blew himself up.

Blair and Kelley were both high-profile reporters. Both landed their rollicking stories on their newspaper’s front page. Their deceptions were brazen and brilliant. They shocked their colleagues, but probably not as much as their colleagues pretended to be shocked: Journalists know they don’t have a lock on honesty any more than cops, undertakers, real estate brokers or itinerant preachers. Once found out, Blair and Kelley caused the resignation of their executive editors and ongoing soul-searching in every news organization worth its ink, mine included. But reforms aren’t necessary. If the news media have a few problems, and they do, plagiarism and hoaxes aren’t among them. Blair and Kelley failed their profession, and the profession will get over it. But the profession is failing the public in more insidious ways than through a few isolated flights of fiction.

Most news organizations aren’t answerable to their audiences but to their shareholders. That’s not necessarily bad. Quality and profits aren’t mutually exclusive, and in the best hands ought to be mutually reinforcing. Almost unrivaled in the media landscape of the 1950s and 1960s, newspapers were stodgy, provincial and as vividly written as stock tables. Television news had its moments, but rarely. The race for profits and audiences improved both immensely. If it has made them compelling in an entertaining sense, it hasn’t made them more relevant, more responsible, less misleading or less pliant to the power structures they’re meant to question. Speaking truth to power has cowered to speaking power’s truths.

Questioning journalism would have uncovered the corruption of corporate boards long before the ruinous scandals of the last three years. Deference to shareholders made that impossible. More responsible and less coddling journalism would not have taken three years to begin discovering the rank dishonesties at the root of the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the war on taxes, the heist of the Constitution in the name of security and the plundering of government regulations and safety nets in the name of bottom-line driven efficiencies. One example whose price we’ll pay for a generation: To this day a majority of Americans think the war in Iraq is part of the war on al-Qaida because journalists have deferred to President Bush’s standing lie about the link instead of exposing it as just one of his administration’s colossal perjuries, thus enabling a pointless war of choice while the menace of terrorism bulks up all over again.

News media don’t miss most stories. They choose to let them slide, and not just when it comes to the president and big-time politics. That’s the disgrace news organizations large and small should be searching their souls over. They’re not. Easier to focus on two termites with imagination like Blair and Kelley.

This isn’t to downplay the crumminess of hoaxers. Lazy journalism has always been the bane of the profession. But Blair and Kelley are the occasional by-product — the effluent, in this case — of what actually works in American journalism, and what makes it sometimes so great. They got away with their hoaxes because their editors trusted them, an absolute necessity if good journalism is to be produced; and because their newspapers’ accounting departments were snoring through expense statements that would have unraveled the fraud had they been more closely examined. Better accountants may help. But forcing editors to be snoops and second-guessers will only inhibit newsrooms more than they already are. There is room for snoops and second-guessers. They’re called reporters. They just haven’t been doing their job, or been allowed to.

Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at  ptristam@att.net.

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