The Joel Stein Show

False Witness

As two fib-friendly journalists have learned, the truth will set you free -- from your job. Luckily, Joel's too lazy to lie.

I never even thought of making stuff up. That lack of imagination is reason enough not to. In truth, I don't lie in print because I don't care enough about my topics to bother. They are, after all, just a pretext to write about the only thing I do care about: me.

As a career in journalism has become moderately more cool, many of us have gotten into it because we like to write, not because we like to report the truth, which -- along with fighting with your editor and drinking until your head swirls -- is the job description. I would have been just as happy writing novels, sitcoms, screenplays...anything, really, besides poetry. I chose journalism because it comes with a steady paycheck. Plus, they print your name at the top of what you write in big letters. You try finding a staff writer's name in sitcom credits.

As newspapers and magazines try harder to entertain their readers by offering up back-page wits and whatever Jessica Shaw finds trendy that week, they employ fewer people who care about the craft. So I'm not surprised that last week 27-year-old New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was exposed for having claimed to file at least 36 news stories from more than 20 cities -- all while never leaving Brooklyn. I am surprised, however, that he could hold back on pillaging his expense account. Brooklyn is okay and all, but the NeverLost navigation system Hertz has in its Jaguars is something every cub reporter should behold.

The Jayson Blairs are only going to multiply. Five years ago, a 25-year-old Carson Daly-ambitious nerd named Stephen Glass got nailed for fabricating news stories that ran in The New Republic, Rolling Stone, and Harper's. And he has now written The Fabulist, a fictionalized account of his downfall. Glass has been able to do what we faux journalists really long to do: break free from the constraints of facts, space, and publications afraid to print the word penis.

Blair, Glass, and I have no interest in reporting. Venturing out into the world and begging people to talk is uncomfortable, stressful, degrading work, especially compared with sitting at a desk and knocking out copy between playing my Xbox. My desire to skip reporting was never so great as when I had to drive six hours in the rain to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Had I simply made up the story about one of the film's last theatrical showings in America, I'd have written about the scene I expected to find: fans with candles and bags of hot buttered spanakopita gathered for a teary farewell. Instead, I was the only ticket buyer and I got into a fight with the manager. I'm not sure what that says about truth versus fiction, but if I have to drive six hours in the rain, I'm going to get at least two columns out of the experience.

I'm lucky that I enjoy talking about myself more than spinning tales about others; that my need to be loved is even more pathetic than Glass' or Blair's. I've been kept honest only by arrogance, fear, and the woman who fact-checks me every week. But now Glass is skating in my rink, writing a self-deprecatory novel in which he uses his real name. And while it's one thing to sully journalism, it's another to bring down the art of self-obsessed first-person columnists.

It's not just that Glass is a lot less exciting in fiction -- The Fabulist drags in spite of a Milton Berle-esque moment of cross-dressing. It's that Glass is once again hiding from the truth. If you're going to attack others, as he did in a bogus 1998 piece in George about Vernon Jordan's sex life, you've got to be willing to put yourself on the line. The Fabulist is the same fictionalizing of autobiography that I objected to when Eminem told his ''life story'' in 8 Mile -- only I didn't write about it then because I'm much more afraid of Eminem than I am of Glass.

I may not be as funny as the fake headlines in The Onion, but I hope that by being brutally honest about myself and, more often, my parents, I get at something true about human emotions -- that revelation melts hypocrisy, and that confession ultimately breeds closeness. Yeah, my mom doesn't buy that one either.

Originally posted May 23, 2003 Published in issue #711 May 23, 2003 Order article reprints