Journalists in disgrace

"You're too good for the Boston Globe!"

-- Local board member,
Society of Professional Journalists, admiringly addressing Patricia Smith,
fired lying columnist

Yeah, right. Granted, these are not great days for journalism. A few vast conglomerates own most media. Corporate culture has taken over news operations, even newsrooms. Standards have been sacrificed, news budgets cut. Why try to find out how polluted the land is when we can speculate on semen stains? Why cover lawmakers' backroom deals when it does little for the ratings?

We knew all that. But one ethical bottom line remained: What we write, what we broadcast, has to be true. Indeed, we use that to justify much of the bad taste we commit: We get away with telling readers over their corn flakes that the president put his cigar in the girl's vagina, because it is in the Starr report. We can name alleged rape victims if we feel enough competitive pressure to do so ... and spell their names correctly.

But you just don't make stuff up. Janet Cooke, a beautiful and tragically talented writer for the Washington Post, was famously run out of the profession nearly two decades ago for making up a story about a child heroin addict. Everyone in journalism correctly saw that as horrible, for practical as well as ethical reasons. After all, we aren't popular people -- and aren't supposed to be. We are the ones, remember, whose job it is to bring you the word that the food's no good; there are loose nukes; there may not be any money in the Social Security pot for us; and, thanks to the ownership, the Detroit Tigers will suck again next year.

When you deliver news no one wants to hear, it better be true. And so Janet Cooke, when last seen was, I believe, selling underwear in a Kalamazoo Hudson's.

Flash forward to this summer when Patricia Smith, a columnist for the Boston Globe, was caught doing a Cooke, making up people and quotations in at least four columns this year alone. She was confronted and forced to quit.

Sad, sorry and disgraceful. But apparently not to the local Society of Professional Journalists, of which I am a (very lousy) new board member, who has had, thanks to work, to miss meetings. So while I don't know the details, SPJ invited Smith to speak last week, paid her airfare and even an honorarium.

Not that hearing from her would have been bad, had she talked about her mistakes.

But there was little of that. Patricia Smith, who styles herself a performance artist, did her best to unwittingly portray Richard Nixon, in all his self-pitying criminality, in blackface and drag. She is a talented, though not very original, poet and spellbinding reader of her own free verse. She is also morally repugnant.

For a half-hour, she waxed alternatively whiny and defiant in neo-hip-hop rhythm. Her father had got shot in the back of the head. She had no journalistic training and was proud of it. She has an agent and is in the current New Yorker's Talk of the Town, though the writer wasn't fair to her either. She has enormous talent with words, and so "tweaked" and "bent" them, Smithese for inventing people who did not exist, like Claire, the phony cancer patient in a May 11 column.

"I did not shoot a Vietcong soldier in the head. I did not suck the president's cock," she said. Briefly I yearned for a sweaty Nixon, talking of his dead brothers. She was busy. She was very important. She didn't have time to be honest.

Wanting to vomit, I looked around and saw rapture. Fellow board member Jack Kresnak, who crossed the line and betrayed his fellow union members in the first weeks of the newspaper strike ("had to save the Free Press") began by glowingly introducing the liar and announcing Smith's talk was "off the record."

Don't think so, sport. Aside from the absurdity that a Free Press scab could credibly declare a public meeting off the record, this was bullshit not worthy of a drunken carnival barker. There were nearly a hundred people in the room, all of whom had just paid $22 for mediocre food and to hear a former journalist talk about her lying.

She wound up by bashing journalism schools, saying she wouldn't have been such a work of creative brilliance if her talent had been stifled by one.

Yawning, I asked 1) Did you do it? 2) Were you unfairly done to? Well, yes, she made up stuff. And maybe firing was justified, but not taking her writing award away. Poor baby!

Was her firing racial? "I never said it was about race," she began. Well, lots of other people did say it was about race. People Smith respects. People who know what they are talking about. So, well, maybe ... finally, applause. Kresnak appeared on the point of orgasm. "I feel all tingly inside," he said. Smith beamed.

"We certainly got more people than usual," said another happy board member.

Perhaps not as many as if we had invited Jeffrey Dahmer. Unfortunately, the cannibal has been offed. But how about Howard Kohn, the Free Press writer who made up his own kidnapping back in '74? Think how tingly that might make Kresnak.

Good night, as Ed Murrow might have said, and God help us all.