Readers’ trust is our currency

The Fabulist wasn’t my first choice. Instead I chose The Journalist and The Murderer because I thought Stephen Glass’s novel simply recounts his misconduct at The New Republic which I already knew through watching the film Shattered Stephen in class. But I decided to drop the half-read The Journalist and The Murderer after a brief talk with a classmate who said what I thought about The Fabulist was just 30 percent of its content. The rest of the book, he said, reveals Stephen’s struggling life after his world-known firing in 1998.

Reading the book, which the author says is a work of fiction – a fabrication, aroused my thought of journalism ethics more deeply than when I watched the movie Absence of Malice. That Stephen cooked dozens of stories he wrote for The Washington Weekly is indefensible. It reminded me of a similar case in Vietnam more than 10 years ago regarding to an acclaimed journalist whose newspaper dismissed him after finding a high-profile story he wrote was fictional.

Back to the case of Stephen, I think The Weekly should also take responsibility of his fabrication because it helped harbor his serial lies. Why Stephen preferred his former editor to the current one Robert is mainly because the former knew well that Stephen invented his several stories but didn’t expose his wrongdoings. That made Stephen to assume that his invented stories were encouraged. Similarly, without the pressure from the rival magazine Substance, I bet Robert would unlikely expose Stephen’s fabrication let alone fire him. I hate the way the editor protected Stephen and his magazine by calling Substance’s editor to request not expose the truth that Stephen cooked the story “Not-so-lucky numbers.” Also the fact-check system at The Weekly, which was considered a very good one, modeled on the industry’s standard, should be blamed, too. If the fact checkers had worked on his stories hard enough and independently, there would have been no chance for Stephen to dupe his aged editors over and over again.

The Fabulist's author, Stephen Glass in Newsweek 2003. Photo: rickmcginnis.com

The Fabulist’s author, Stephen Glass in Newsweek 2003. Photo: rickmcginnis.com

Stephen’s fabrication of facts, sources and entire stories is a cardinal ethical violation. Journalists are dealing in nonfiction rather fiction. We may present the truth creatively and even borrow from the novelists in our writing format but we are not allowed to make up anything. The way Stephen did his reporting is also unethical. His published story “The Catnappers” is an example. For the sake of his story, he became inhumane when observing two persons who claimed to be animal right activists kidnapped a dog into a car without any interference. What a veterinarian responds to Stephen when he asks her to verify if the dog was very nervous when she was brought into the car is worth thinking. “How do you live with yourself? You watched them do it, and you could have stopped it, and yet you did nothing. What kind of person are you?” – says the vet [page 189].

Similarly, I am also concerned about what Beth, a journalism student, and Cliff, his colleague, have done to get an exclusive story on Stephen’s side during his hardest time. Let’s talk about Beth first. She is a journalist major which means, I bet she has known about journalism ethics. But the way she lured Stephen in a chatroom, pretended to like him, slept with him and after all exposed the whole process on The Washington Banner is not ethical at all. That is not the way a reporter does. In most cases, no ethical reporter starts doing a story without telling his/her subject up front that he/she is a journalist and is doing his/her job. Though Stephen is a fabulist and an unethical journalist but above all, he is still a human being who deserves of respect, especially when he is at the bottom of his life. People might appreciate Beth’s story because she is the first who managed to approach Stephen since he was fired. But I believe no true journalist supports her disgusting reporting. The way she did her story “Sleeping with the enemy” just proves that she is more than like Stephen.

So does Cliff. This person first proves that he is a persistent reporter and he cares about Stephen while the whole world criticizes him. In the name of a good friend and peer, he keeps hunting the fabulist to convince him to give an exclusive interview. It sounds convincing that what Cliff wants is to give Stephen a chance to speak out his side so that people can have a thorough and balanced understanding of the scandal at The Weekly. “I want it to be fair and balanced… I just want to make sure I get everything right,” he says [page 329]. When Stephen’s misconduct was uncovered and hit the headlines, the press flocks to his apartment in Washington D.C. and his parents’ house in Chicago family, but no one uses Cliff’s condemnable way. No ethical reporter treats Stephen and his girlfriend, Syl and their dying dog as inhumanly as Cliff does at an animal hospital. To force Stephen to talk for his article, he threatens him ceaselessly in the hospital. “You’re in check, Stephen. You have to make a move or forfeit. You have to talk or be punished for your silence. So which is it?” [page 330]. Ultimately, Cliff succeeds in making Stephen speak up but no one can bear seeing him grab the bleeding dog out of Syl’s lap and pump the dog over his head. That he says: “My job is to help the public understand what has happened” [page 331] is an unacceptable excuse.

What I see after reading the book is that Stephen, Beth and Cliff are birds of a feather. Stephen confesses that he fabricated story after story because he wants to be recognized as having written a great article. I think Beth and Cliff share the same motive as Stephen’s. They want to boost their career. They want to prove that they can approach the condemned fabulist and they can interview him while other reporters can’t. They are too eager to get a good story to forget that their strategies are never acceptable in journalism. Like Stephen, I think Beth and Cliff deserve being condemned and fired, too.

My take-away after reading The Fabulist is also what Robert talks to Stephen when he fires his star reporter. “The readers’ trust is our currency. Credibility, Steve, is the only thing that holds journalism together.”

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