It’s All so Difficult

Another thought or two on the fabulating reporter. The whole story, at least as presented by the reporter’s colleagues (and there are no doubt further stories behind that, or further truths), is a case study in how difficult it can be to get at the truth. Difficult in a variety of senses – difficult just in the sense of grind, slog, graft; difficult in the sense of having to overcome obstacles; difficult in the sense of beset with uncertainites, doubts, confusing evidence; difficult in the sense of painful, ethically and emotionally; difficult in the sense of stumbling in the dark, of not even knowing there is a truth to be found.

The investigation suggests several reasons Mr. Blair’s deceits went undetected for so long: a failure of communication among senior editors; few complaints from the subjects of his articles; his savviness and his ingenious ways of covering his tracks. Most of all, no one saw his carelessness as a sign that he was capable of systematic fraud.

It happens all the time. Afterwards, of course, with perfect 20/20 hindsight, everyone can see what went wrong, but life doesn’t happen afterwards, and it’s often not obvious which person is having problems but doing better and which is a dedicated fabricator. So Blair’s editors didn’t tell the editors on his new assignment about his record of mistakes, and as a result the new editors didn’t check up on him as they would have if they’d known.

Mr. Roberts and Mr. Fox said in interviews last week that the statements would have raised far more serious concerns in their minds had they been aware of Mr. Blair’s history of inaccuracy. Both editors also said they had never asked Mr. Blair to identify his sources in the article. “I can’t imagine accepting unnamed sources from him as the basis of a story had we known what was going on,” Mr. Fox said. “If somebody had said, `Watch out for this guy,’ I would have questioned everything that he did. I can’t even imagine being comfortable with going with the story at all, if I had known that the metro editors flat out didn’t trust him.”

And then of course it’s just plain hard work, isn’t it, getting out there and talking to a lot of people, traveling, hanging around in airports, checking facts, asking questions. It’s so much easier to stay home and make it up, even if you factor in all the trail-covering that involves. So the reporter apparently took a shortcut, and then another, and then a whole bunch. All very trendy, in a way. The readers didn’t know the difference, they got their story about Jessica Lynch’s family on the porch overlooking the non-existent tobacco fields, and their heart-warming story about the injured soldier in the military hospital who said the bravely self-deprecating thing that he never said. The readers probably enjoyed the story. One wonders if the reporter thought of it that way.

And when there were serious suspicions at last – when the San Antonio Express-News complained about plagiarism of one of its stories – Blair made the truth as difficult to find as he could.

In a series of tense meetings over two days, Mr. Roberts repeatedly pressed Mr. Blair for evidence that he had indeed interviewed the mother…”You’ve got to come clean with us,” he said – and zeroed in on the mother’s house in Texas. He asked Mr. Blair to describe what he had seen. Mr. Blair did not hesitate. He told Mr. Roberts of the reddish roof on the white stucco house, of the red Jeep in the driveway, of the roses blooming in the yard. Mr. Roberts later inspected unpublished photographs of the mother’s house, which matched Mr. Blair’s descriptions in every detail. It was not until Mr. Blair’s deceptions were uncovered that Mr. Roberts learned how the reporter could have deceived him yet again: by consulting the newspaper’s computerized photo archives.

It’s simply an unending, impossible, unforgiving chore, figuring out what the truth is. No wonder some people would like to do away with the task altogether.

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