behind the news

Guess what? People lie to reporters

Like Jessica Pressler, I got burned once. Here's what I did about it.
December 22, 2014

Fourteen years ago, a man lied to me. I was a business reporter at The Baltimore Sun. What he told me was not a small lie or a “misstatement,” as he would later claim, but several flat-out fabrications. The man, who told me to call him Dick, said he graduated from MIT. He said he’d fought in Vietnam. He said he’d sold his company to Microsoft for millions of dollars.

I put it all in my story. And none of it was true.

I stayed on the business desk while a colleague re-checked my work. The story that took me two and a half days to report erroneously would take him more than two weeks to correct. I did not endure the public ridicule Jessica Pressler faced when she reported a story for New York magazine about a high-school student who made $72 million in stock trades–which turned out not to be true. Nor did anyone claim that my failure to check facts set the cause of rape victims back several decades, as with Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s now-discredited Rolling Stone work. And though one media critic demanded to know why the Sun didn’t publish my name when correcting the error, no one outside the newspaper cared much. In fact, I only heard from one man, a former colleague of Dick’s who alerted us to the lie. He told me he was sorry if the debunking cost me my job.

It didn’t. The newspaper’s top editor re-assigned me to a suburban bureau and told me to learn from my mistake.

I did. If someone told me she had a degree from a certain college, I checked with the registrar. If he said he fought in a war, I checked with the American War Library. If subjects claimed military service, I checked with the branch. If my checks required more time than my deadline allowed, I asked for more time. There were limits. If I drew a Saturday obits shift, I found it awkward to ask a grieving widow to fax me her dead husband’s diploma–though I did that once. And I couldn’t check every detail on breaking news, though I was a regular user of Google, LexisNexis, Pacer, and the Sun‘s crackerjack librarians.

People lie to reporters. They tell a lot of little lies, and sometimes they tell big lies. They claim degrees that they never earned and jobs they never held. They lie to their friends, and they lie to themselves.

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Some journalists might argue that a finely tuned BS detector would catch these deceptions before they burned us. In some cases, it would. But even today, I’m not sure Dick would have set off any alarm bells. I went to his office. I looked up his property records. I called some of his associates. He was a successful businessman who had developed an interesting product, and we would likely have written about him without the embellishments.

Not long after the Dick fiasco, I was working on a story about zoning for drug-treatment centers. Through an architect I knew, I met a man I’ll call Brad. The architect told me that Brad had graduated from Juilliard and Columbia and sang in the world’s finest opera houses before he lost everything to drug addiction. He was now helping other addicts. Brad demurred; the real story, he said, was Baltimore’s heroin problem and the lack of treatment options. But once I got him going, he couldn’t stop talking. He even sang for me. His colleagues vouched for him. He was credible.

I thought Brad’s story made a nice anecdote. I called Columbia. They’d never heard of Brad. I called Brad back: Was he sure he gave me the correct dates? Then I called Juilliard. They’d never heard of him either. By then Brad had stopped taking my calls. I told the architect to get Brad on the phone with me or I’d kill the story.

He tracked down Brad on his way to the emergency room, where his doctor had sent him because of stress-induced chest pains. As medics wheeled his gurney, Brad wheezed that he had not only lied to me, but to everyone else: his wife, his sponsor, and his parents, who had paid for what they thought was a first-rate education. Most of his singing had happened in the subway. At least the addict part was true. I yelled at the man on the gurney until my editor told me to stop. Not my finest hour.

Brad called me a couple of months later to tell me he’d quit his job for a less stressful one where no one knew the lie. He had joined a gym, lost weight, and was coming clean. His entire life had changed, he told me, because of a few factchecking phone calls.

It was never going in the newspaper, so I didn’t check it. But I’d like to believe it was true.

Rona Kobell is a staff writer at the Chesapeake Bay Journal and the co-producer of Midday on the Bay at WYPR in Baltimore.