All the News That's Fit to Fake

Prestigious U.S. media have taken some serious body blows over the past few months, and critics have quickly fingered the cause of these missteps: capitalism, or more precisely, the lust to capture readers and viewers in a hypercompetitive marketplace.

But the critics have their thinking caps on backward. The competitive processes of today's marketplace were what led to the rapid exposure and resolution of these journalistic shenanigans.

Rather than denigrate capitalism and the search for profits, media critics should praise market processes for providing a public service. The desire to discover the truth, and to place reputation first, exposed all the frauds.

LET'S RECAP the notorious goings-on. The New Republic fired an associate editor, Stephen Glass, after discovering he invented sources and subjects for more than two dozen stories written for the magazine.

The Boston Globe dismissed columnist Patricia Smith after finding out she created fictional characters to deliver polemical messages in her "reporting" about life on the streets.

Then the newspaper forced the resignation of veteran columnist Mike Barnicle, citing reportorial lapses in a 1995 column about children with cancer and "the duplicitous way in which the story was written." Indeed, the children may have been fictional.

Cable News Network and Time magazine made a dramatic public apology and retractionóand fired two producersóafter jointly airing and publishing stories alleging that the U.S. military used deadly nerve gas on American deserters in Vietnam.

THE CRITICS have been having a field day. In the Los Angeles Times, Marvin Kalb, a former CBS and NBC reporter who is now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, blames "profit-centered, business-oriented news" and the "24-hour-a-day news cycle with nonstop demands for 'profitable news.'"

In Intellectualcapital.com, media critic Eric Alterman faults the "culture of celebrity worship" and "the notion that the actual information in any given story is less important than the entertainment package it helps create."

"The business of journalism," complains Wired’s Jon Katz, "has become dominated by large conglomerates whose only interest is profits, who have no ideology other than mass marketing."

JOSEPH PULITZER and William Randolph Hearst must be cackling from their graves.

A century ago, the two icons of that era's prestige journalism drove the nation into a frenzy–and a war with Spain–over their sensationally exaggerated accounts of Spanish oppression in Cuba. Their goal was to sell newspapers with what became known as yellow journalism.

From the Colonial pamphleteers who fomented revolution against the British to the frontier editors who would publish any slander to sell papers, "newspapermen" and broadcasters have always sought bigger audiences and fatter profits by offering information and entertainment.

THE CURRENT controversies are different in one important way: How they were exposed.

Glass' follies were made public by an editor for the on-line publication Forbes Digital Tool.

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