A day before we went to press, I was in a bookstore where a magazine caught my eye. It was a rather esoteric monthly from the West Coast. As I thumbed through its colorful pages, I had one of those oh-shit moments. There, verbatim, was "our" cover story.
It was too late to stop the production process, so I had no alternative but to beg the other magazine's editor and the story's author to sell us reprint rights.
The most distressing part of the story, though, was the utterly unrepentant attitude of the writer. "Well," she said, as if it were a coincidence, "there are only so many ways to say something."
"I've got over about 3,000 words here," I said, "and nearly all of them exactly duplicate the other magazine's words. Don't you think there'd be some deviation?"
"Well," she said, exasperated, "you do what you think is right, Cliff." The implication was that I was creating the problem, not her.
This came to mind during the last few weeks with the revelation that Jayson Blair, a reporter for The New York Times, had plagiarized work and concocted an amazing number of fictions that his editors found suspicious but published anyway. Coincidentally, Stephen Glass, a very successful writer for the The New Republic, George and The New York Times Magazine, published his first novel, The Fabulist in the last few weeks, too. Glass' novel is, weirdly, a fictionalized account of his own history of doing the same things that Blair did. He was fired in 1998 by every magazine that employed him.
Eerily, most accounts of Blair and Glass report, if not the same lack of remorse I encountered in the CL writer, a very blase attitude. Indeed, Newsweek reported Blair holed up in his apartment with his lawyer and literary agent, occasionally firing off breezy e-mails to former colleagues. Of course, like Glass, he's expressed some contrition -- a prudent move when your literary agent is about to market your sleazy story to book publishers. Even New York publishers, dazzled by scandal, require a bit of remorse before handing over a fat advance. But it ought to be obvious that Glass' tale, told as fiction, is a cynical self-parody of the offense that got him fired and now enriches him.
A few weeks ago in this space I wondered why we have all become so indifferent to lying. The question is now why we actually reward it. The media -- our main method of communicating larger truths -- are most certainly part of the problem. I noted that Dubya lies repeatedly and the media stand by inertly even though his approval ratings reflect the success of his lies more than his actual accomplishments. Bill Bennett, former secretary of education and author of the prissy and pompous Book of Virtues, turns out to be a compulsive gambler and the story takes well over a year to hit the papers. Meanwhile, Bennett has billed himself as the last champion of virtue.
Obviously, Blair and Glass demonstrate that the media have become victims of their own failure to be generally diligent about the truth. The most conspicuous explanation is the conversion of what used to be called "the Fourth Estate" (because media were charged with monitoring the three branches of government) into a form of entertainment. Since truth can be tedious or unpopular, there is a broad agenda to fictionalize reporting through what is euphemistically called "spin." Most reporters are honest people who are outraged by behavior like Blair's, but the reality is that they work inside a media culture that pressures them to entertain readers. Thus it was their capacity to be outrageous, glib and sentimental that made Blair and Glass stars to begin with.
But one has to think that the media don't only massage the American psyche. They are also massaged by it. Addled moralists like Bennett, ignorant that they are symptoms of indifference to truth, like to blame the problem on "relativistic thinking," abandonment of traditional values. The problem is actually just the opposite. The schools no longer teach students how to think critically, to question orthodoxy. They continue to cut back education in the arts, which, more than anything, teach us about truth as beauty and the power of the imagination to make new worlds. Go talk to a high school class these days and you'll find one thing on everyone's mind: how to make money. This concern -- as "truth," as "traditional value" -- is not questioned much.
The hunger for celebrity goes with that, of course. And the message we all get -- like Blair and Glass got -- is that if we can't do it on our own, we should cop someone else's style. Plagiarism in effect is business in America as usual. I mean, how many ways are there to be a star, baby?
Cliff Bostock, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in depth psychology. His website is www.soulworks.net.