A young man was fired recently for posting a fake press release on his personal blog, announcing that he’d been hired to work as a reporter for the Delaware News-Journal.
His superiors evidently were upset because the reporter used the newspaper’s logo on his blog and included a few of his editor’s actual “hiring-letter quotes” in the fake press release.
The Gawker website said it all: “Newspaper Fires Reporter for Showing Mild Sense of Enthusiasm.”
If it was a sin, it was a very small one, but some people in this business have tended to overreact ever since a few high-profile reporters were caught indulging in fabrication and plagiarism. The most infamous case was that of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who resigned in 2003 after being outed as a serial word thief and fabulist.
I had always felt perfectly secure in the past, knowing I had never invented scenes, made up quotes or stolen other reporters’ phrases. The news out of Delaware, however, left me trembling.
I looked back on my 30-year career in the news biz and wondered if there was anything which, if found out, could result in my firing. I’m afraid there is, so I have decided to fess up now and take my lumps, rather than waiting in suspense for someone else to unearth my crime.
All the news that fits
Back in the early 1980s, when I was working in the Anaconda bureau of the Montana Standard in Butte, one of my periodic chores involved writing up the results of the Anaconda Garden Club exhibitions, at which the ladies (I believe they were all ladies) were awarded ribbons for prize petunias and whatnot.
The results rarely ran more than an inch of two and they were printed in “agate” — the tiny type used for sports box scores and the like.
At the time, my wife and I had one daughter, a toddler whose name was Jessie but for whom we had multiple nicknames.
One of them was Wee Pierre, which grew out of the word “Weepy.” We had given her that nickname because — young parents that we were — it seemed to us that she cried more than was absolutely necessary. Another of her nicknames was Stukes Babwey, the origins of which are lost in the mists of time.
One day when I was typing up the latest Anaconda Garden Club results, I decided to relieve my boredom by insinuating my daughter into the list of winners. And thus it was that prize-winning gardeners “Mrs. W. Pierre” and “Mrs. S. Babwey” found their way into the pages of the Montana Standard.
It was only afterward, once my wife and I had a laugh over it, that I had minor regrets. What if one of the ladies in the club spotted the fabrication and told my editors?
I didn’t think I’d be fired, but maybe I’d be writing garden club results a lot longer than I’d planned. I knew I was safe when one of the club members came in a few days later bearing a tray of cookies, as they usually did after I published the results. (Payola is a completely different ethical problem.)
The message of the cookies
Anyway, that tray of cookies was confirmation that no one noticed my deception. From that day forward I could breathe easy.
Until now. It’s possible that I will be fired in this new age of heightened sensitivity.
I should add that all the transgressions I’ve mentioned apply only to news stories. In columns like this one, we have considerable leeway.
That’s why I recently printed an entire interview with “Lockwood man.” I hope readers understand that I made him — and the interview — up.
But speaking of payola, there is one more small thing I should confess to. I once agreed to insert specific material into one of my columns in exchange for private gain.
Let me explain. Some years ago, a former reporter — let’s call him J. Hagengruber; no, that’s too obvious, so let’s call him Jim H. — said he would buy me a six pack of beer if I could get the German word “Donaudampfschiffartsgesellschaftkapitan” into my column, which I did.
But the column was a follow-up to a column I wrote about long and unusual words, so it was no great stretch to work that word into the piece. I’m pretty sure there was nothing unethical about it.
As for the payola, all I can say is that the unnamed former reporter never did buy me that six pack.