Pros at the Con
By Maureen Dowd
The New York Times
Sunday 02 November 2003
I gave a Valentine's Day party in 1981 and Janet Cooke came.
On a dance floor filled with red and white balloons, I introduced myself and complimented her on her amazing story about Jimmy, an 8-year-old heroin addict in the D.C. projects.
Flashing her dazzling smile, the pretty 26-year-old Washington Post reporter thanked me and shimmied away. That spring, she won a Pulitzer. Two days later, Ben Bradlee had to return it a moment, he told me recently, that was the most painful of his career.
Jimmy didn't exist and Janet was a grifter, a woman who pretended to be a Sorbonne graduate and a tennis ace.
Fifteen years later, my friend Michael Kelly, then the editor of The New Republic, told me about a very angry letter he had fired off to someone who had criticized one of his young writers, Stephen Glass. I was worried that Mike's language in the letter had been too belligerent, even as I admired his Gael force loyalty.
After Mike left the magazine in 1997 a departure sparked by fights with the owner, Marty Peretz his successor, Chuck Lane, discovered that Glass had fabricated many of his quirky stories.
The new movie "Shattered Glass" recounts the absorbing tale of how a pathological and smarmy young man fooled the brainy journalists at the publication referred to in the film as "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One." (Though Ryan Lizza, a political reporter for The New Republic, jokes that with the current administration, Sports Illustrated is the in-flight magazine of Air Force One.)
"The reason that con artists get away with elaborate deception is that most people refuse to live in a world in which cynicism is the rule," says Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's literary editor, who never suspected Glass. "We're mentally prepared for honest mistakes. And everybody lies. But most people lie because they're afraid, not because they get pleasure out of deceiving or because they have contempt for people and standards of probity."
It's hard to protect yourself from the big lie.
The seriously creepy Jayson Blair is riding his con to fame and bucks. He has now replaced Elizabeth Smart as the carnival "get" who shouldn't be got. Katie Couric is planning an NBC special and a "Today" show interview with the New York Times fabulist to help him peddle his book, which has the most risibly tacky title in publishing history "Burning Down My Master's House."
I have now watched two "Law and Order" episodes based on Blair. Murders were thrown in, because an information scam is not good enough for Dick Wolf's franchise.
An information scam is good enough for George Bush's franchise, though. It's clearly easier and safer especially in the era of instant, interlocking data and technology to go with the truth than a ruse, but the Bush team went with a ruse to get us into what Rummy belatedly calls "the long, hard slog" of Iraq.
Now we're in the postwar war, and President Bush is still manipulating reality. He wants to obscure the intensity and nature of the opposition, choosing to lump anyone who resists the American occupation in the category of terrorist.
He has also tried to play down the fatalities and the large number of wounded. He has not been attending memorial services or funerals of the soldiers killed in Iraq, according to The Washington Post. And the Pentagon reinforced a ban on news coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings at Dover.
This sort of airbrushing is tasteless, because it diminishes our war heroes instead of honoring them. And pointless, since news outlets are running the names of the dead every day and starting to focus more on the heart-rending stories of the maimed.
Political calculations have now trumped the proclamations of virtue and symbolism that this White House would normally embrace.
It's bad enough to try to hide critical information when you can get away with it. It's really insulting to try to hide it when you can't get away with it.
Those who go for the big con, who audaciously paint false pictures, think everyone else is stupid. They want to promote themselves based on the gullibility of others.
For Cooke, Glass and Blair, their editors were the marks. But at least that unholy trio only soiled newsprint. For the Bush crowd, the American people were the marks.
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