Today is April Fool's Day. So it might be appropriate to note the hoaxes, con jobs, frauds and pranks which the New York Times has been suckered by since the Jayson Blair fraud and plagiarism scandal in 2003. Blair, you'll recall, was the young New York Times reporter who plundered other news organizations on big national stories via the Internet and pinned false datelines to the accounts he filed. Comedians had a blast with that one. “You know the old slogan of the New York Times, 'All the news that's fit to print'?” Letterman quipped. “They've changed it The new slogan is 'We make it up.'”
L'Affaire Blair prompted reforms at the Times, which were supposed to prevent other frauds and hoaxes. But they don't seem to have worked so well, if the number of recent instances in which gullible Times reporters and editors have been “punked” is any indication. While humorous, these gaffes expose a disturbing loss of rigor at the institution once seen as the gold standard of American journalism.
* On April Fools' Day, 2010, Metro reporter Andy Newman relied on an occasional Times guest blogger for a story about a theater troupe (fallaciously) planning to have a thousand people ride the subway nude below the waist. “Subway Nudity Possibly O.K. With Everyone,” the headline chuckled.
*In late January 2009, a front-page Metro section story by freelancer Ravi Somaiya, headlined “It's the Economy, Girlfriend,” profiled "Dating a Banker Anonymous." Somaiya described it as a "support group" for girlfriends of recession-pressed investment bankers. The DABA website invited women to join “if your monthly Bergdorf's allowance has been halved and bottle service has all but disappeared from your life.”
A suspicious NPR blogger declared that it was “totally obvious” it was a put-on. “My guess is that the women are setting themselves up for a kind of reality-show Confessions Of A Shopaholic book,” she wrote.
Newsweek confirmed it. One of the two founders, both of whom signed with high-powered talent agencies in New York and L.A., admitted that the site was a parody, with “posts” written by her and her cohort, and details sometimes plucked “from thin air.”
*In late December, 2008, while Caroline Kennedy was reportedly being considered for the New York Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, the paper published a letter to the editor by someone claiming to be Bertrand Delanoe, the mayor of Paris, saying that Kennedy had “no qualification whatsoever” to be a senator. Her appointment would be wholly “dynastic.” The “mayor” concluded: “Can we speak of American decline?” The real Mayor of Paris had nothing to do with the letter.
*In February 2008, The Times celebrated Margaret B. Jones and her memoir of life in a world of crack, gang violence and police brutality in South Central Los Angeles, Love and Consequences. “Margaret B. Jones” turned out to be Margaret Seltzer, who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb and attended a top private school. Her knowledge of gang culture came from conversations in ghetto coffee shops.
*In March 2007, a New York Times Magazine cover story by Sara Corbett was devoted to American servicewomen in Iraq. One,a Navy Seabee, claimed to have been raped in Guam while awaiting deployment to Iraq, and to be suffering brain damage from an IED in Iraq. The Navy informed the Times that she had never been to Iraq.
* In March 2006, Nicholas Confessore detailed the plight of a Hurricane Katrina victim from Biloxi, Miss., stranded by the ineptitude of FEMA, the Red Cross, and the welfare department in a run-down New York City hotel with a passel of children. But the African-American woman was nowhere near Biloxi when Katrina hit, and did not even have custody of her children. Soon after the report, the D.A. arrested her for fraud.
*A November 2004 profile described the cult novelist JT LeRoy as a cross-dressing former hooker, under the headline, “A Literary Life Born Of Brutality.” New York magazine subsequently revealed that JT LeRoy was a publicity invention and that he was really a she masquerading as a transgendered man, which The Times reporter apparently missed over their interview lunch. (This is a mistake some New Yorkers have been known to make, but usually not until well after dark.)
* In a November 2003 obituary, Douglas Martin reported that a prominent Harlem photographer, after losing his twin brother to testicular cancer, had his own testicles removed in solidarity. An ensuing correction noted that the brother had died of prostate cancer and the photographer indeed did not have his testicles removed. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz dubbed it “The correction of the month.”
It is tempting to blame inexperience, but even veteran reporters have been rused. A more likely culprit is the tide of PC solicitude washing through the Times' newsroom, since many hoaxes involve members of certain “victim” groups. The paper's embrace of “soft news” is a factor too, encouraging reporters who are more adept at identifying pop trends than at telling fact from fiction. At any rate, as media tricksters grow more savvy, the journalistic street smarts needed to smoke them out have become more scarce at the (former) newspaper of record.
William McGowan is the author most recently of "Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America" (Encounter Books/grayladydown.net)