In the latest episode of alleged “fake news” in high places, the Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen was placed on leave after hosts on WEEI claimed the columnist—part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news during the Boston Marathon bombings—falsely inserted himself at the scene of the terror attack.
Cullen wrote in April 2013: “After the initial explosion, runners instinctively craned their necks toward the blast site. Then, 12 seconds later, a second explosion, further up Boylston. It was pandemonium. I saw an older runner wearing high rise pink socks, about to cross the finish line.”
This month, he “reflected” on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy: “I can smell Patriots Day, 2013. I can hear it. God, can I hear it, whenever multiple fire engines or ambulances are racing to a scene. I can taste it, when I’m around a campfire and embers create a certain sensation. I can see it, when I bump into survivors, which happens with more regularity than I could ever have imagined. And I can touch it, when I grab those survivors’ hands or their shoulders.”
However, WEEI’s Kirk Minihane reported that Cullen had confirmed he had that day off and arrived at the scene hours later. Cullen is also accused of fabricating details related to the father of Martin Richard, an eight-year-old killed in the attack. Cullen also allegedly falsely claimed a firefighter named “Sean” saved Martin’s sister, rather than off-duty firefighter Matt Patterson, to whom Cullen never spoke.
Should the allegations prove true, it will not be the first time the Globe has been wounded by a columnist’s fabulism. The paper forced columnist Mike Barnicle to resign after his editors could not confirm the details of a tear-jearker he wrote about two cancer-stricken boys of different races in 1995. Similar allegations had dogged Barnicle for years.
Barnicle might have survived had the Globe not also forced out columnist Patricia Smith, who was caught fabricating socially downtrodden people and their quotations in four of her columns in 1998. The perception that Barnicle was treated differently than a female African-American writer helped end his run at the paper.
Of course, most people tend to remember only the highest-profile cases of journalistic fabulism. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended for six months after admitting he told a false story about coming under fire while covering the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That incident raised questions about his reports on a variety of stories. He is now mostly relegated to MSNBC.
The Williams scandal was not NBC’s first, either. “Dateline NBC” infamously aired a story showing a GM truck bursting into flame following a collision, but had used tiny rockets strapped to the bottom to ensure it would ignite.
The Globe and NBC are hardly alone. The New York Times suffered a huge embarrassment when it was discovered that reporter Jayson Blair fabricated comments and falsely created the impression he had been places or witnessed people in dozens of stories. As the NYT admitted: “[H]e used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq.”
The Washington Post has not been immune either. The paper returned a Pulitzer Prize awarded to Janet Cooke after discovering that “Jimmy’s World,” a front-page saga about an eight-year-old heroin addict, had been fabricated. The fraud was uncovered only after other journalists alerted the Post to Cooke’s inflation of her Pulitzer résumé.
Other media fabulism scandals are known mostly to those who follow politics. The premier example may be Stephen Glass, who fabricated all or parts of 27 articles he wrote for The New Republic over the course of two and one-half years, including the lurid but fictional exploits of young men at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1997.
TNR was stung again by Scott Thomas Beauchamp, who wrote a number of inflammatory pieces about the U.S. military as the magazine’s “Baghdad Diarist.” After an extensive re-reporting effort, the magazine concluded it “cannot be confident that the events in his pieces occurred in exactly the manner that he described them.” (That Beauchamp was married to TNR fact-checker Elspeth Reeve—a seemingly blatant conflict of interest—did not instill confidence either.)
Even less well-known, but more bizarre, was Nik Cohn’s 1997 confession that the story that made his career and was adapted as the movie “Saturday Night Fever” was almost entirely fiction, very loosely based on people he knew from London, not Brooklyn.
Consider further the case of Jack Kelley, a star reporter for USA Today who was found to have fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories that spanned the globe, including a Pulitzer finalist. In 2002, the Associated Press cashiered DC bureau reporter Christopher Newton upon concluding he made up sources for at least 40 of his stories. In 2004, Fox News apologized to Sen. John Kerry after publishing a supposed “joke” article by Carl Cameron, one of Fox’s more respected reporters, that Kerry had received a manicure before a presidential debate, complete with fabricated quotes.
Setting aside the occasional goofy incident, such as Jay Forman inventing the sport of “monkeyfishing,” media fabulism tends to fall broadly into two major categories. The first are those stories that did not receive proper editorial scrutiny because they confirmed their editors’ political biases. The second are those that mash the reader’s emotional hot buttons in ways which are sometimes political, sometimes not (the Cooke scandal, for example, arguably falls into both categories). The emotional content of such stories also likely accounts for why fake news spreads faster than real news.
If the Boston Globe concludes the accusations against Cullen are true, his career may well be at an end. Those judged to be fabulists generally do not recover professionally, although Beauchamp has since written for The Atlantic, a once-prestigious magazine.
Cullen could take some comfort in the fact that the cases that did not involve ideological or political biases seem to have had less harsh results, as in the cases of Williams and Barnicle. Or it could be that Williams and Barnicle survived because they were already media fixtures beyond print. Fabulism, like so many other things, may be less damaging to the rich and TV-famous.