The Liars’ Club: An Incomplete History of Untruths and Consequences

Last week, Village Voice senior associate editor Nick Sylvester became the latest poster boy for journalistic malfeasance when it was revealed that he had fabricated part of a cover story for The Voice. The paper acted swiftly, suspending Sylvester, printing a letter of apology, and removing the offending story from its website. (A widely linked cached version of the story seems to no longer be available.) Voice managing editor Doug Simmons has professed his affection for Sylvester and his willingness to cut the writer some slack since “The thought of firing him is a painful one for me.” (Full disclosure: I worked at the Voice before Sylvester arrived and was fired by Simmons.)

Has Sylvester ruined his career? What follows is a survey of other writers who couldn’t resist going for a little something extra. Some of them fabricated, some plagiarized, some composited where they had no business doing so. Nick Sylvester’s future is far from written (early retirement? a novel? a career in Hollywood? law school?), but if these writers are any guide, he’ll probably be just fine. He’s young, white, and Ivy League-educated, so he probably won’t wind up selling shoes in Michigan like Janet Cooke. —Matt Haber

Update: The Black Table got there a few scandals ago. It can be found here.

The Accused Mike Barnicle

Crime Against Journalism Fabrication; plagiarism

Rap Sheet Barnicle, a columnist for The Boston Globe, faced accusations of plagiarism and fabrication for years before a 1995 story about two kids dying of cancer was determined to be a fraud. (See: Repeat Offender, by Tom Mashberg, Salon, August 20, 1998.) Dan Kennedy of The Boston Phoenix unearthed similarities between Barnicle’s writing and A.J. Liebling’s from 1986. He was also accused of borrowing observations from comedian George Carlin.

Plea Sloppiness; Laziness.

Sentence Resignation from The Boston Globe in 1998.

Afterlife After a brief period, Barnicle returned to writing, first for The New York Daily News and then for The Boston Herald.

Hollywood Ending None.

The Accused Jayson Blair

Crime Against Journalism Fabrication; Plagiarism

Rap Sheet Starting in April 2003, several stories written by Blair, a New York Times reporter, were called into question after a reporter for The San Antonio Express-News noticed similarities between a piece by Blair and one of her own. After a Times investigation, it was revealed that Blair had fabricated details and quotes in several stories. (See: Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for America, by Seth Mnookin.)

Plea Mental health problems; exhaustion; bad diet.

Sentence Fired.

Afterlife Blair went on to write Buring Down My Masters’ House and currently runs Azure Entertainment Corporation.

Hollywood Ending In 2003, Mnookin’s Newsweek stories about Blair were optioned by Showtime for “a black comedy” to be written and produced by Jon Maas.

The Accused Nik Cohn

Crime Against Journalism Fabrication

Rap Sheet In 1976, Cohn wrote “The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” for New York magazine, a story about outer-borough discos and a working class young man who frequents them. In 1997, Cohn admitted he’d invented much of the story.

Plea As a Brit living in America, Cohn claimed he couldn’t find his story in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, “So I faked it. I conjured up the story of the figure in the doorway, and named him Vincent… I wrote it all up. And presented it as fact.” (See: Writer Admits Faking “Saturday Night Fever” Story, by Marcus Errico, E! Online)

Sentence None.

Afterlife Cohn was caught up in a drug sting in 1983, but continued to write. His most recent book, Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap, came out in 2005.

Hollywood Ending “The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” was turned into the film Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and went on to gross $237,113,184 worldwide.

The Accused Janet Cooke

Crime Against Journalism Fabrication

Rap Sheet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for “Jimmy’s World,” a Washington Post article about an 8-year-old junkie. The article caused a sensation despite the fact that Jimmy did not exist. (See: Janet’s World, by Mike Sager, GQ, June 1996.)

Plea Pressure

Sentence Cooke resigned; The Post returned the Pulitzer.

Afterlife Cooke left journalism and became a saleswoman in Michigan.

Hollywood Ending Sager sold the film rights for his article to Columbia Tri-Star for $1.6 million.

The Accused Michael Finkel

Crime Against Journalism Compositing

Rap Sheet Finkel, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, created a composite character in his November 18, 2002 story “Is Yousouf Malé A Slave?” Some also questioned the veracity of other stories he’d written for the magazine. (See: The Great Pretender, by Robert Kolker, New York, March 4, 2002.)

Plea Overreaching; Literary ambition.

Sentence Fired. The Times was forced to run an extensive correction.

Afterlife Finkel went on to write True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, an autobiographical story of his career and a murderer who borrowed his identity. The book was excerpted in Vanity Fair in June 2005.

Hollywood Ending Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, optioned True Story in 2005.

The Accused Stephen Glass

Crime Against Journalism Fabrication

Rap Sheet Starting in 1996, Glass fabricated numerous subjects, situations, and details in pieces he wrote for The New Republic (where he was an associate editor), Harper’s, Rolling Stone, George, and Policy Review. When a TNR story he wrote called “Hack Heaven” was called into question by an editor at Forbes Digital Tool, Glass went so far as to create a fake website for a company he made up and had his brother leave voice mails for his editor as one of his subjects. (See Shattered Glass, by Buzz Bissinger, Vanity Fair, September 1998.)

Plea Youth. Desire to be liked.

Sentence Two year suspension from TNR that became a de-facto firing by then editor Charles Lane.

Afterlife Went to law school, wrote a novel based on his experience called The Fabulist in 2003.

Hollywood Ending Hayden Christensen starred in Shattered Glass in 2003.

The Accused Rodney Rothman

Crime Against Journalism Fabrication.

Rap Sheet In the November 27, 2000 issue of The New Yorker, Rothman, a former head writer for Late Show with David Letterman, fudged details of his experience infiltrating a dotcom in “My Fake Job.” Rothman neglected to mention in the article that the company he walked into and pretended to work for employed his mother and invented details. (See: Magazine apologizes for article with made-up details, AP, December 5, 2000.)

Plea The article was intended as a humor piece.

Sentence The New Yorker was forced to issue an apology.

Afterlife “My Fake Job” was included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002 (edited by Dave Eggers). Rothman went on to produce Undeclared and the short-lived sitcom Committed. He also wrote the well-received memoir Early Bird in 2005.

Hollywood Ending UTA shopped “My Fake Job” to studios in 2000.

The Accused Ruth Shalit

Crime Against Journalism Plagiarism

Rap Sheet Shalit, also an associate editor at The New Republic, used several passages of other writers’ works in articles about the Justice Department. (See: Plagiarize, Plagiarize, Plagiarize… Only Be Sure to Call It Research, by Trudy Lieberman, CJR, July/August 1995.) The Washington Post also accused her of playing fast and loose with facts in a story she wrote about the paper’s affirmative action policies. She also may have borrowed another writer’s phrasing for a New York Times Magazine profile of Bob Dole in 1995. (See: Repeat Offender, Mother Jones, January/February 1996.)

Plea Computer malfunction, mixing up her “research” with her own writing.

Sentence Fired by TNR.

Afterlife Shalit left journalism to work in advertising for a time but returned, writing occasionally for Salon, Details, and Elle, where according to her wedding announcement in The New York Times, she is a contributing writer.

Hollywood Ending None, but according to LA Observed, she is married to Robertson Barrett, a producer for a company called Reality Pictures in Los Angeles.

The Accused Patricia Smith

Crime Against Journalism Fabrication

Rap Sheet Smith, a columnist for The Boston Globe, invented quotes and subjects in four columns in 1998. (See: Boston Globe columnist resigns, accused of fabrications, CNN, June 19, 1998.)

Plea Inability to create humans from whole cloth: “I attributed quotes to people who didn’t exist,” Smith wrote in her final column. “I could give them names, even occupations, but I couldn’t give them what they needed most—a heartbeat.”

Sentence Resigned.

Afterlife Smith continues to write poetry, publishing several books.

Hollywood Ending None.

The Accused Elizabeth Wurtzel

Crime Against Journalism Plagiarism

Rap Sheet In 1988, Wurtzel was accused of lifting passages from another writer’s work in her work in The Dallas Morning News. (See: Beg, Borrow, Or…, by Dwight Garner, Salon, July 22, 1996.)

Plea None.

Sentence Fired from The Dallas Morning News.

Afterlife After her firing, Wurtzel managed to become the music critic for New York, The New Yorker, and publish the memoir Prozac Nation in 1997. (That book also faced accusations of fabrications). In 2004, Wurtzel was accepted by Yale Law School.

Hollywood Ending The film version of Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation was made in 2001 but didn’t appear in the U.S. until 2005 when it went direct to cable.