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Fakery in American Journalism

The uproar over Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who was exposed as a man who made up details and descriptions and embellished stories with false quotes, has omitted one salient fact. The journalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries would have shrugged off Mr. Blair's inventions with a goodnatured wink. "Faking it" -- the tradition of manufacturing facts to enliven stories -- or even describing things that never happened -- has a long tradition in American newspapers.

On January 1, 1776, the Pennsylvania Packet, a Philadelphia newspaper, published a list of the remarkable occurrences of 1775. One of them occured on April 19, when "two thousand veteran British soldiers were attacked and defeated by 300 peasants, and were saved from destruction by running 40 miles in one day." The American "peasants" also known as minutemen, actually numbered 3763, and were an embryo army that had been training for war for almost a year under officers who had seen action aplenty in the French and Indian War. Sarcely one in twenty of the British "veterans" had been in a battle before.

After the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, a reporter for the New York Herald, the biggest and most powerful newspaper in America, filed a story describing how victorious southern soldiers had bayonetted wounded northern troops who were trying to surrender, and in one case chopped off a dead Union soldier's head and used it for a football. None of these things happened.

In the runup to the Spanish American War Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, and his fabulous clone, William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, collaborated to produce reams of imaginary events demonizing the Spanish rulers of Cuba as brutal butchers. They succeeded in inflaming the American public mind and Congress declared war on Spain over President William McKinley's objections.

After the war ended, Pulitzer surveyed his paper's record and got an attack of conscience. He ordered the top editors to gather the staff of the World and tell them that henceforth, truthfulness would be the paper's policy. He added a memorandum in which he said it was time for the World to become "a normal newspaper again." But the tradition of faking it was by no means extinguished in the minds and hearts of numerous reporters and editors.

After World War I, the editor of the World, Frank I. Cobb, confided an electrifying story about Woodrow Wilson to two writer friends. Cobb said he had been summoned to the White House on the night of April 1-2, 1917, the eve of Wilson's speech callling for war, to discuss the decision. Cobb did not get there until 1 a.m. and they talked into the dawn.

Cobb said Wilson told him he had "considered every loophole" to escape going to war but each time Germany deliberately blocked them with some "new outrage." Then Wilson supposedly began to talk about the impact the war would have on America. "He said when a war got going it was just war and there weren't two kinds of it," Cobb said. "It required illiberalism at home to reinforce the men at the front. We couldn't fight Germany and maintain the ideals of government that all thinking men shared. He said we would try but it would be too much for us."

"Once lead this people into war," Wilson continued, "and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be ruthless and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter the very fibre of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street."

"He thought the Constitution would not survive it," Cobb said. "That free speech and the right of assembly would go. He said a nation couldn't put its strength into a war and keep its head level; it had never been done."

"'If there's any alternative, for God's sake let's take it,' he [Wilson] exclaimed. Well I couldn't see any, and I told him so," Cobb concluded.

It is a moving scene. But there are grave reasons for doubting it happened on the night of April 1-2, or any other night. There is no record in the White House log of Cobb visiting Wilson at 1 a.m. on April 2. Many historians, including this one, think the whole thing was a piece of clever fakery, to make Woodrow Wilson look like a tragic figure. Cobb's motive? The war had made a mess of America, exactly as his pseudo Wilson preedicted.

The ultimate piece of fakery in the Wilson White House was yet to come. After Wilson collapsed with a cerebral thrombosis in the fall of 1919 while on a speaking tour to sell his version of the League of Nations to the people, one of the great coverups in American history began. Mrs. Wilson and the president's doctor, Admiral Cary Grayson, concealed Wilson's condition. For over a month he was in a virtual vegetable state.

By 1920, Wilson had made a partial recovery, though White House chief usher Ike Hoover, who saw him every day, opined in his memoirs that intellectually he had shrunk from a giant to a pygmy. Mrs. Wilson, deluded by love, began to think the crippled president could and should run for a third term. She invited Louis Seibold, who covered the White House for the New York World, to visit for an interview. Delighted by a chance to get on the front page, Seibold collaborated shamelessly with the scam.

The reporter told how delighted he was to find the president almost his old self. He joshed with him about running a footrace in a month or two; he would give the president a modest handicap because of his "slight limp." (In fact, Wilson's whole left side remained paralyzed.) Seibold was soon telling even more blatant lies. He said he saw Wilson "transact the most important functions of his office with his old time decisiveness, method and keenness of intellectual appraisement." In fact, Wilson's attention span was about sixty seconds. The reporter claimed to have watched Wilson sign a document "with the same copper plate signature." In fact, his signature was an indecipherable scribble. Seibold even maintained Wilson was functioning better as president than before his "illness" because now he had more time to deliberate on matters.

Admiral Grayson chimed in with a plethora of lies about Wilson's amazing recovery. The hoary tradition of faking it was still alive and well in Louis Seibold's corner of the New York World's newsroom. For a final irony, the interview won Seibold a 1921 Pulitzer Prize.

Reporters are human. Jayson Blair's sad story reveals that faking it remains a temptation in the newsroom. The New York Times is to be congratulated for the forthright way they have confronted this latest eruption of a potentially fatal media disease.