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Who Makes Stuff Up, And Why They Do It


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The history of journalism is replete with sometimes celebrated figures who made stuff up: Janet Cooke, a rising star at the Washington Post, Stephen Glass at The New Republic and now Jonah Lehrer, who resigned his job yesterday as a staff writer at the New Yorker. And you may have heard Jonah Lehrer as a guest on several NPR programs.

The authors of memoirs have also crossed the line: James Frey and "A Million Little Pieces" may be the best-remembered. Mike Daisey invented scenes at a factory in China for his one-man show, and repeated them on public radio.

Some scientists have manipulated or fabricated data to support a hypothesis. The motives and the costs of fabrication. If you're a writer, a blogger, a broadcaster, have you ever made stuff up and passed it off as nonfiction? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, dressage, jumping, three-day eventing: the equestrian events at the London Olympics. But first, fabrication. And we begin with Jayson Blair, who wrote about his fabrications in "Burning Down My Master's House: A Personal Descent into Madness that Shook the New York Times." He's now a managing partner and life coach at Goose Creek Consulting and joins us on the phone from his office in Northern Virginia. Nice to have you with us today.

JAYSON BLAIR: Thank you.

CONAN: And you wrote in a commentary for the Daily Beast that, nine years ago, you were Jonah Lehrer. Remind us: How did your story get started?

BLAIR: Well, I mean, in a lot of respects, I think that in my particular case, you were talking a little bit about motives. It was anxiety and fear over, you know, not being able to live up to my own expectations and other people's expectations led me to plagiarize and fabricate in the New York Times.

You know, obviously, in 2003, that broke out as a big scandal, and it took a long time and a lot of soul-searching for me to kind of analyze why I did it and, you know, the slippery slope that led me on that course, and also how I could help people avoid that.

CONAN: The feeling in the - it must have been awful when it all came out.

BLAIR: Well, I mean, I remember the sense of panic, almost terror. You know, I think, you know, in the beginning, sort of like Jonah Lehrer, that motivation to lie about it and try to minimize it has way more to do with disappointing your loved ones and your colleagues than it has to do with preserving your fame. And, you know, I just found that piece to be difficult. And I'm really glad he's gotten to the point where he's owned up very - relatively early to it, and I think that gives him a chance to move on.

CONAN: And recover. It is - it can be a career-killer.

BLAIR: Yes. Well, I mean, I think that any of us who do something like this, Mike Daisey, Janet Cooke, you know, Stephen Glass and myself, I think because journalism relies so much on trust - and we see the same thing in academics and other fields. You know, once you've violated that trust, you know, you deserve to be exiled from the profession, but it doesn't mean you can't rebuild in another way.

You know, there are other professions - you know, for example, choreography or some of the arts - where you may have the opportunity to rebuild in your profession, like Doris Kearns Goodwin did in her case. So, you know, what I hope is that at some point after he's done some reflection, he has the opportunity to do redemption, you know, both for his life and helping people avoid this kind of pitfall.

CONAN: Helping people avoid this kind of pitfall - you would have thought that your story, as spectacular as it was, might have reminded everybody that maybe you shouldn't do this.

BLAIR: Right. And I think that one of my realizations in dealing with people like this in these situations as a life coach, and then from my own personal experience, is part of the reason why - you know, I knew about Janet Cooke. I knew about Patricia Smith, and other people who have been caught in this way.

I think what happens is because the slippery slope starts with something relatively minor, I think it's easier to slip into it, even though you know and you have heard of the lessons. So if there's anything I could leave people with, it's be very cautious of crossing that initial line.

I think if any of us - if anyone had said, you know, you're going to blow up your profession, and you're going to harm the people around you, very few of us would have done what we did. But it starts with small things. And those little, small, ethical lines that you cross build into bigger things. And you're able to rationalize it in the beginning, and then all of sudden, you're too far down that road.

CONAN: What was your first step? When did you start?

BLAIR: Well, the beginning in the first one was taking a quote from the Associated Press for an event or a - I think it was a news conference that I missed, taking a quote that had been published in the Associated Press that day, because at that time, it wasn't published on the Internet, but we got the wire service during the day - and using it as if I had been there, not putting the attribution on.

You know, in the grand scheme of things, is that huge? You know, I think in retrospect now it's pretty big, but it feels very small in the moment.

CONAN: And then it got easier.

BLAIR: Right. And once you know, once the myth has been destroyed that you'll instantly be caught in a situation like that, it becomes easier to do it again. You know, it's kind of like finding a drug that takes away your pain or frustration or your anxiety and turning to that drug that you now know exists and using it as a crutch over and over again.

CONAN: It's interesting. In the Janet Cooke case, she invented a character, a kid, and wrote what a lot of people thought was going to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning column...

BLAIR: It did actually win the Pulitzer, and that's how it kind of fell apart.

CONAN: And that's how it kind of fell apart. Your stuff was relatively minor-league by comparison. It was not spectacular.

BLAIR: Right. And I think in my particular case, it's an example - although you see the same thing in the Janet Cooke story when you burrow into it, and you see the same thing with the Stephen Glass case. You've got a bunch of individuals all in this case who feel like they can't live up to the expectations that they have for themselves.

And I think in some respects - you know, and this is a humbling idea - that maybe our place, for all three of us, was never to be at the top in terms of stardom, that we were meant to sort of be in the middle of the road. And if we had kept to those realistic explanations, or expectations, we would have been in a better place.

So it kind of goes back to the notion that you just brought up, that mine was relatively minor. I think that lends credence to the idea that it's not necessarily about fame. It's not necessarily about all these things that people often associate it with. But it really, truly is about that cognitive dissonance between our actual performance and where we believe we should be.

CONAN: In some respects, you don't get to where you got in the New York Times without working very hard. Let me preface - let me say what I'm going to say about - with that. But in some respects, did it - was it an aspect of laziness? I don't have to go down to check that story out, I can just steal some copy from the local paper.

BLAIR: Well, I think that in certain cases, and some of the situations for me, I think an element of laziness played a role. You know, I was later diagnosed - and everyone's situation is different. I was later diagnosed with manic depression. I think dealing with some of that early mental health issues made it very, very confusing - not to make it an excuse, but it made it very confusing and difficult to manage some of those things.

So it was an easy way out, instead of going to the people at work and going to the other people and saying, hey, I need some help. I think also, to some extent in my particular case, you know, it was driven by an element of immaturity and naivety and all sorts of other factors. And it's not to say that that applies in this case or in other cases, but there are a confluence of different motives.

It's not as - it's not as easy to paint that perfect narrative to describe why people in our situations do what we've done.

CONAN: There is also - as you mentioned, there's the relationship with your colleagues, in particular with editors. And reporters have a, well, you know, to say it's confessional relationship with their editors is probably not to overstate it too much.

BLAIR: Mm-hmm. Well, and I think it's professional and personal, because we share in each other's successes. You know, when we do something spectacular as reporters, editors feel so good. Often, they're our mentors. And when they do something wonderful with our work, we feel so indebted. So I think that all of that mixes up, and I think that's one of the hardest personal things about it, that you're betraying the trust of people who have really helped you and betraying the trust of people who really care about you.

And so I think that it goes back to one of those notions that's key to journalism and key to Wall Street and in other places - but journalism, in particular - you know, its emphasis is on truth. But ultimately, underlying that truth has to be trust between reporters, editors and then the public that works with them.

And to me, every time one of these scandals comes back up - and, you know, we're probably less than .001 percent of the journalists out there - but it reinforces the myth that people have about this going on all the time in journalism, or the bias.

CONAN: There is that, and that's the lasting damage. As you mentioned, also, the personal damage, the institutional damage to whatever newspaper or magazine or whatever the publication was that was engaged in this. But there are people who never got caught. And there is an element of personal damage, too.

BLAIR: Mm-hmm. Well, and I think that one of the things that stands out for me that, you know, I haven't really written about or talked about, I think that the first idea to do something like this was planted in my head by a situation, a difficult situation that a colleague ran into where they had left the scene of an area, left the state that they were supposed to be reporting in, but the editors thought that they were in their original state.

And, you know, I know that this person, to this day, even though they're out of the profession, is wracked by guilt for this. I think it was a very personal blow to them in terms of their ethics. And, you know, that's one of the things that I say, that the greatest cost is perhaps, you know, realizing that you, even though you are a good person, are capable of these very bad things.

CONAN: And how long after the whole story came out, how long after that were you able to begin to come to terms with this?

BLAIR: Well, I think for me, there was the initial beginning stage. And then I think writing my book helped. But in reality, it probably wasn't until six or seven years afterwards that I could say I really had perspective on it.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate it.

BLAIR: Well, I appreciate you having me on, and I'm glad you're writing about - or excuse me, I'm glad you're talking about this topic.

CONAN: Different media, same problems.

BLAIR: Right.

CONAN: Jayson Blair, former reporter for The New York Times, who resigned after his fabrications led to a major journalistic scandal. He later wrote the book he mentioned, "Burning Down My Master's House: A Personal Descent into Madness that Shook the New York Times."

Well, it's not just journalists who make stuff up. In a few minutes, we'll talk about scientists and writers who fake data and other details. If you're a writer, a blogger, a broadcaster, have you ever made stuff up and passed it off as nonfiction? Call us: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. After Jonah Lehrer admitted to making up Bob Dylan quotes for his latest book and lost his job, we're talking about the motives and the costs of fabrication - not just in journalism, but in science and memoirs and other areas, as well.

If you're a writer, blogger broadcaster, have you ever made stuff up and passed it off as nonfiction? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

It can be more difficult, perhaps, to spot memoirists who fabricate events or experiences to make their own life story seem better, more dramatic, more tragic. James Frey, Margaret Seltzer come to mind. So how do writers avoid those traps? Meghan O'Rourke is a poet, critic and memoirist who has written for the New Yorker and Slate magazine. Her memoir, "The Long Goodbye," about the loss of her mother, was published in 2011. Megan joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Nice to have you on the program again.

MEGHAN O'ROURKE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And are memoirs - how are memoirs different from journalism?

O'ROURKE: Well, I think that the difference comes down to the contract that you're making with the reader, and I actually think that not all memoirs are that different from journalism. But in journalism, you're making a very clear contract with the reader that everything you say is going to be factually accurate as you've reported it.

In a memoir, you're making a contract that the story you're telling, the memories you have, are accurate to your experience of them, right. If you're writing about your - you know, a memory of being five years old, I don't think that the reader necessarily expects that you have written down somewhere, at the time you were five, exactly how the conversation went, right. But you're basically trying to - you're - it is - this is your memory of being five. And that's truth, right. That's your truth.

CONAN: And your truth, the other person in that discussion might have a different memory of it.

O'ROURKE: They might have a different interpretation, right. I think when you start to get into what's complicated about memoir - and I think the contract the memoir-writer has to make with the reader is that if there's something where remembering it accurately means a lot to the narrative, and not remembering it accurately could really change the way that the reader reads it, then I think the memoirist has to say - has to make clear in the writing of that scene or that moment that there's some ambiguity here, right, and that that's the way, as a memoirist, you try to communicate honestly.

And, you know, so memoirs are always in this kind of slippery ground of personal interpretation of personal - the way I tell the story of my mom dying is different from the way my father would tell the story of it. But that doesn't mean that I'm lying. I would be lying, however, if I totally misrepresented what took place, right, and I knowingly did it, and I did it for my own purposes or for narrative purposes. That would, I think, be a real violation of the contract with the reader. And that's what James Frey did in his book.

CONAN: And some people say, look, I put a disclaimer in the book that - I'm not claiming to have gotten everything exactly right, and indeed, that some events may have been condensed or even characters combined.

O'ROURKE: Yeah. I'm not a fan of that, I have to say. I understand that people do it. I don't think that you should. I think it - you know, again - well, I should change that. It depends on the kind of book. You know, if you're writing a book that's supposed to be mainly funny and it's just a good story, I mean look, I'm from an Irish family. They're storytellers. Are those stories exactly true? No, but they're hilarious, because they've been told well as stories.

So there's a certain kind of narrative that you could engage in where you could make composites or you could condense the scenes, and that would work well for the narrative. But I think if you're doing it to intensify something that didn't happen that way, and you're talking about drama rather than, say, humor, that starts to get into a sort of sketchy territory, I think, personally.

CONAN: And you wrote a memoir in what's I guess now known as the post-Frey era. Have editors gotten better?

O'ROURKE: You mean in terms of fact-checking, and so on and so forth?

CONAN: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: That's a good question. You know, I think with my story, it was so personal, and there was nothing in my book that would necessarily lead you to think this was - it wasn't a really - it was kind of an ordinary story, even though it's authentic - you know, a story of kind of family tragedy. So no one fact-checked.

The lawyers - you know, lawyers will raise certain questions. And if you're saying anything that is considered controversial about another person, they want verification from that person. So there is that. But there is not fact-checking in most nonfiction at all. And I've always thought that this was, you know, one of the reasons that so many - so much plagiarism happens, so much invention happens.

And for a while, I thought of starting a website where people could kind of use a wisdom-of-crowds approach to reporting inaccuracies in memoirs and nonfiction because, you know, we all read unintentional errors, not even intentional ones. But there are unintentional errors in all sorts of nonfiction that we read. And that's, you know, that's not something that happens so much in magazine writing.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Peter in Detroit: I wrote sports for the student newspaper as an undergraduate. The smaller sports coaches were pretty accessible. There were times I could not get to the football or the basketball coach after a game and could not get a quote for my story.

At the suggestion of another writer, I used an old quote from a previous game. Coaches say the same things all the time, he assured me. He won't notice. He didn't. And after looking at the quotes of other stories, he did say virtually the same thing when asked about a similar game or team-related subjects.

While that sort of let me off the hook and I was never caught, I still never felt totally right about it. And I think you're right not to feel totally right about it. As a former editor myself, I think that crosses the line. I meant to ask you, Meghan O'Rourke, you've worked with the New Yorker. It was an interesting observation in the New York Times today that maybe the New Yorker did not pick up Mr. Lehrer's duplication of other work that he published in the New York Times, that he'd previously published in other things, because renowned fact-checkers at the New Yorker don't check the Web stories as rigorously as they check print.

O'ROURKE: I suspect that that is true. I do think that that's true. There's not the same standard for Internet - for blog posts, really, because they're considered a different form. So I think that they don't check them in probably quite the same way.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Of course, journalists, memoirists, historians are not the only ones who make stuff up. Scientists do it, too. One of the biggest cases of fraud emerged last year in the Netherlands. A well-known psychologist there made up data in dozens of studies going back at least a decade.

When scientists make up data, it's often years before the lies come to light. Adil Shamoo is professor of biochemistry at the University of Maryland and editor-in-chief of a journal called Accountability in Research. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for being kind enough to come in today.

DR. ADIL SHAMOO: My pleasure.

CONAN: And we're talking about motives. Are the kinds of motives you hear ascribed by Jason Blair and other writers similar to the motives of scientists, do you think?

SHAMOO: Of course. They are part of the society. However, I don't believe one motive, really, results in misconduct in science, for example, or in journalism. The spectrum is from A to Z. We are part of the society. We reflect the mores of the society. So giving it a single motive is not the right thing to do, really.

CONAN: And are - there sometimes can be a financial motive in science, that Whammo Powder is proved to be perfectly safe if you're being paid by the Whammo company.

SHAMOO: Financial, fame, mental illness, variety of motives can enter into it, basically. But, you know, stress of productions to get a grant, for example, or to get a paper published. So it's all the gamut, really, of human motivation to do something, to excel in your profession or in your finances.

CONAN: Yet this goes to the utter core of your profession.

SHAMOO: Absolutely. In science, the scientific integrity is almost the sole pillar of science. Everything depends on the integrity of science, whether it's a rocket, whether it's our national security, whether it is our drugs, whether it our bridges. All of them depend on the integrity of science. If there are problems in the integrity of that science, we will see rockets explode, as it happened in the Challenger disaster. We see drugs not working the way they claimed it work, and it killed or harm patients.

And you could see careers of graduate students destroyed because their advisor was shoddy in his mentoring and fabricated some data in the process to get more ahead.

CONAN: And there's the case of Andrew Wakefield, the British researcher whose fraudulent research in the late 1990s led to widespread misinformation about vaccines and autism and who, in a sense, could be held responsible for whooping cough outbreaks across the country (unintelligible).

SHAMOO: Absolutely. Millions of people quit, didn't give their children the vaccine, MMR. That's mumps, measles and rubella. And so that is disaster to these children as they grow. He took 12 subjects, 12 patients, and he published a paper in a prestigious journal. There's nothing in the world with 12 patients you could make conclusions in such a complex area of autism and effect of the - oh, the...

CONAN: The effect of the vaccine, the cause and effect (unintelligible). Yeah.

SHAMOO: ...the vaccine, yeah. Exactly, exactly. Yeah.

CONAN: Let's get a caller involved in the conversation. We'll start with Paul. Paul's with us in San Jose.

PAUL: So my confession, I guess, is when I was 15, I had already been accepted into college. I was a junior, and I was skipping my senior year. And I had been accepted to college but had a senior science project to do. And I was way out of my depth, and I ended up just making up data. And I couldn't - I was never caught. I was never confronted. But I have to admit, when I look - the only time I did that, when I look back I wonder if that's where my life started to go off track.

CONAN: And so it never came to light, but it was simply...


CONAN: ...that fear that you were out of your depth. And if anybody really probed...

PAUL: I was out of my depth, and it didn't seem that important since I was already going to college at a top university the next - in the fall.

CONAN: And when you say your life later went off track, how so?

PAUL: Oh, well, I've had a bankruptcy in the last year and never quite - for having entered a top school at 16, never quite felt like things worked out, but I hoped it would.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for sharing your story. Sorry it didn't work out. I wanted to ask you, Adil Shamoo. We talked with Jayson Blair. He does not expect, I don't think, ever to have another - go back into journalism, but there are others, he says, circumstances where people can recover their careers. What about scientists?

SHAMOO: Well, I think that probably happens in science too. Let me tell you, just in United States, there are three million people involved in research, and one million of them with postgraduate degrees - Ph.D.s, M.D.s and the like. So if we reflect the mores of the society, if you have very small percentage, 0.01, you're talking about tens of thousands of people could fabricate, plagiarize, et cetera, falsify data.

So that is really the problem we're dealing with. We're dealing with human behavior. And one way to improve human behavior is really training and education, in elementary school and middle school and high school and colleges. Plagiarism in colleges is very rampant. I read the statistics. Somewhere between 40 to 70 percent plagiarize their term papers or other papers. It's really very distressing.

But there are no, really, training and education and research, I think, in elementary school, middle school, high school, colleges or even in graduate school. It's only required for trainees, which are less than 1 percent of the population of graduate students. So we fall short.

CONAN: Adil Shamoo is editor-in-chief of "Accountability in Research" and author of a textbook called "Responsible Conduct of Research." Also with us is Meghan O'Rourke, poet, critic and memoirist. We're talking about fabrication, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Ian(ph): My friend wrote a memoir recently and combined a few people under nicknames to hide identities. Sometimes you really don't want or need to put people's dirty laundry directly out there, but some of it does further the plot.

Meghan O'Rourke, that's a - not an uncommon thing to change the names to protect the innocent or maybe the guilty.

O'ROURKE: Yeah, and I think that's a very different kind of issue from plagiarism or inventing quotes, for example, or falsifying scientific data, you know? I think there are things that fall under the rubric of literary license or protect - you know, when you're writing a memoir, you're exposing a lot of other people, and I think it's totally legitimate to use other names, you know, certainly composite characters now and then, if it's not - if it's - you know, to - made clear at the beginning of the book, I think that's one thing. But falsification of the story, you know, plagiarizing, inventing wholesale narratives, that's a really different thing.

And the Jonah Lehrer case is interesting because one of the things that he did, of course, was to repurpose material he had already written. And I think that something this case speaks to is the incredible pressure on journalists to produce and produce and produce and produce really quickly.

In the age of the Internet, you're writing not just print pieces, but also blog posts all the time. And so, in a way, he's kind of like, I think, the Typhoid Mary of a pressure that lots of journalists feel and that, I think, many young journalists - is leading many young journalists to plagiarize.

I've been reading a lot about cases where editors catch, you know, interns plagiarizing or borrowing quotes from other stories, and they just don't realize - this speaks to the other guest's point about education - they just don't fully understand that there's something unethical about this and that it's a betrayal of the contract you've made with the reader.

CONAN: Let's go next to Steven(ph), Steven with us from Phoenix.

STEVEN: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Steven.

STEVEN: Hello. I just wanted to call and share. I'm an undergraduate student, and upon the occasion, though not necessarily a fabrication, I have been guilty of taking my opinions and attributing them to others and essentially having enough sources in an essay where I know they're not going to actually look at any of the particular ones, and also making sure to use long enough sources, where even if they did, hence, though, they're not going to look through the entire document to figure out that, well, that was my opinion that I was actually sharing it.

CONAN: So this is so much short of the line of honesty.

STEVEN: Yes, it is. And although I wouldn't necessarily qualify as plagiarizing because it's certainly not facts, but...

CONAN: It's fabrication, yeah.

STEVEN: Yes. Misattribution.

CONAN: It's almost - OK. That's the rationale. But it's almost as much work to do that as to do the real work.

STEVEN: Well, I think sometimes yes, but sometimes - I can think of a couple of particular essays where I needed somebody to say one particular thing to kind of complete a short segment of an argument of a thesis. And after extensive research, I couldn't find someone who would necessarily agree with what I was trying to say and just kind of add legitimacy.

CONAN: Yeah. That's - yeah. Yeah. That's pretty far down the slippery slope, I would say. But you may want to reconsider.

STEVEN: Well, thank you.

CONAN: You might want to reconsider your hypothesis, which is, Adil Shamoo, exactly what a scientist should do when you get data that doesn't agree with what your hypothesis is: oh, maybe I was wrong.

SHAMOO: That's correct. And they become married to the model system they have created. And so they try force feed the data into it. And that's really part of mentorship. Mentorship is - if it's poor, that could happen more frequently.

CONAN: And how does - we just have a few seconds left. You write scientists peer reviewed these papers. They're supposed to be gone through by people who are very knowledgeable. How does this stuff get through?

SHAMOO: Peer reviewers don't know every detail, and how in the world they could check the data that they are reflecting the original data obtained in the laboratory? It's very, very, very difficult. Peer reviewers are really not the place to do it. There has to be another method of doing it, and I have proposed 20 years ago random audits.

CONAN: Random audits. Well, Adil Shamoo, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

SHAMOO: My pleasure.

CONAN: Adil Shamoo, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Maryland. And our thanks as well to Megan O'Rourke, who joined us by phone from Brooklyn. Appreciate your time.

O'ROURKE: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: She is a poet, critic and memoirist, the author of "The Long Goodbye: A Memoir." When we come back, we're going to be talking with our own Julie Rovner. No, no, no, not about health care, about horses. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.