Fakes in Journalism

November 14, 2003 • Ethics and Quality • by

Il Corriere del Ticino, November 14, 2003

An average man would lie 200 times a day – or, to put it in less drastic terms, would avoid telling the truth, would attenuate it, distort it, would deceive, tell lies or would simulate “as much as he/she finds possible”. These are the results of the study by John Nicholson from London University, which have recently been divulged by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. A study welcomed with relief by newsrooms because, implicitly, it eases the position of the media, often accused of being insincere, even if it is not enough to acquit journalism completely of its own shortcomings.

In Switzerland, in the last few years, numerous cases of falsification and scandals have been discovered. Not only a popular newspaper like the Blick, but also the prestigious NZZ am Sonntag have been involved due to the recent false interview of Lorenz Wolffers with Scott Turow. And how can one forget the case of Jayson Blair, a New York Times journalist, who a few months ago was discovered to have embellished, exaggerated or simply to have invented numerous testimonies?

Apparently the cases in which journalists and the media misinform have increased recently. A lot of evidence tends to accredit this thesis, nevertheless it could also be, simply, that today the cases in which journalists lie and the media betray their own public come to light more often than in the past. And this thanks to better control of quality and to journalism’s intensified self-observation.

However, the European Journalism Observatory, recently founded at the University of Italian Switzerland, has gathered some of the most spectacular cases in which journalists have actively falsified information or have naïvely published false news that was believed to be true. The implications are manifold. Reading falsifications is amusing on the one hand, but it also shows how newsrooms – despite all the willingness to maintain the standards of quality – can easily become “victims” of the black sheep that with their actions cast doubt on journalism’s credibility. And it shows the nature of a disturbing deception of which the victims are the media and the citizens: news carefully falsified for the purposes of propaganda by spin doctors, the modern wizards of information.

War Correspondence: Manipulation of the Media at the Front

Jessica is not a Heroine
It is one of the stories that moved public opinion during the war in Iraq. That of Jessica Lynch, the intrepid American woman soldier who survived an ambush in Nassyriha after finishing her ammunition shooting at Iraqi soldiers before being wounded and stabbed. Jessica was saved in a spectacular and dramatic night raid (the news footage was transmitted by television worldwide) in the hospital where she was taken and guarded by dozens of Iraqi soldiers. In reality, Jessica was not hurt in battle, but in the overturning of the military truck in which she was travelling; she did not shoot a single bullet but, by her own admission, started praying. Finally the raid was staged: when the marines went into action the Iraqi soldiers had already left, the hospital was dismantled. A few hours before, the Iraqi doctors had tried to hand over the girl to the Americans, but they were forced back in a shooting at a check point.

The Raped Bosnian Nun
In the April of 1994, Italian newspapers published the agonizing testimony of sister Lucj, a Bosnian nun raped by the “Serbian White Eagles”. A year later, a journalist wrote that Sister Lucj had given birth to a beautiful boy, that she had left the order and was living in Zagabria. Later it was found that Sister Lucj had never existed: her story was in reality the fantasy tale of a priest, Monsignor Alfred Contran, winner of a literary contest at the end of 1993. How his tale had become a journalistic story still remains a mystery.

1991 Kuwait: the False Embassy Conquest
The war to liberate Iraq was concluded with a very suggestive scene: the re-conquest of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City by soldiers who lowered themselves down to the building’s terrace from helicopters. A useless exhibition from a military point of view: the embassy had been dismantled days before, – to take possession of the building it would have been enough to go through the main entrance – but important from the media point of view. It served to delete the memory of the tragic helicopter landings on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975. This had been staged for television purposes.

The Black Cormorant, First Gulf War
At the end of January 1991 televisions worldwide spread the tormenting images of a cormorant soaked in oil, agonizing in the waters of the Persian Gulf, blackened by the crude from the oil terminals opened by order of Saddam Hussein. That image, followed by others similar in the following days, became a symbol of the inhumanity of the Rais. Months later it resulted that those images had been shot in another country at another time: they were the testimony of another case of pollution. The ornithologists observed that in that season there were no cormorants in the Gulf, they arrive only in spring. A reporter admitted having shot other scenes of “black cormorants” with animals taken from a zoo and soaked ad hoc with oil. And, above all, in the beginning there was an incongruity: the CNN could not have filmed those scenes in Kuwait, because at that time the emirate was under Iraqi occupation and inaccessible to the western media. But nobody noticed in that period.

The False Iraqi Threat to Saudi Arabia – August/September 1990
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. convinced Saudi Arabia to grant the use of the bases and to finance the war by showing the Riyahd government satellite pictures from which it resulted that the Iraq troops were disposed on the territory in offensive position: a line formed by tanks, a real sword hanging over the kingdom which appeared in imminent danger. The titles of newspapers worldwide read: Saddam ready to attack Saudi Arabia. Five months later, the St. Peterburg Times obtained other satellite pictures that dated back to the period August-September, taken by a commercial satellite. These were examined by two military experts, one from the DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency); both excluded that an offensive maneuver had been in preparation: the Iraqi troops had been preparing lines of defense. No other newspaper followed the news of the St. Peterbug Times. Subsequently historians and American experts showed that Saddam did not even think about invading Saudi Arabia.

Timisoara’s Slaughter
Everything started on December 17th 1989: from that day on the news of the slaughter caused by the revolution against the regime of Ceausescu bounced from agency to agency, quickly reaching all the corners of the planet. The stories were scrupulous in the details, precise in the figures: 4632 corpses, according to the most widely spread news. The massacre of Timisoara was shown repeatedly by television, and reported in detail in the pages of major newspapers. The images of the mass graves made world public opinion shudder: very few noticed that the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition, and that they had been cut and sewed coarsely. Subsequently it emerged that that bodies originated from a cemetery of the poor: there had not been torture but autopsy, and all the incongruities suddenly became evident. Exhumed and served on a plate to the media of half of the world, they created a media event that supplanted reality and that still remains today in the historical memory of western civilization. In the disorders of Timisoara in December 1989 there were actually 72 corpses and 253 wounded.

War 1914-18: the Pictures of the Dead Soldiers
In 1917 the world press published the pictures of “dead bodies of soldiers destined for a soap factory”. In reality they were banal pictures of the bodies of soldiers who had died in battle. The deception was conceived by the general Charteris, one of the executives of the Department of Information in London, who had the cynical idea of combining two separate episodes. Two pictures – the first showing bodies of dead soldiers, the second carcasses of horses transported to a factory to draw oil and soap from them – were found on a dead German officer. Charteris unified the protagonists and images of the two scenes under a single caption. It served London two purposes: it showed the inhumanity of the Germans in order to influence public opinion in the eyes of the world and it convinced the Chinese, who were devoted to the cult of the dead and therefore particularly horrified, to abandon their neutrality and to go to war on the side of the allies. Nobody, in that period, wrote that the bodies of the soldiers were not destined for a factory, but rather for normal burial.

Other Sensational Journalistic Falsifications

The Kummer Interviews
In the most important case, to date, of falsification involving the newsrooms of our country, the person responsible is a Swiss journalist. It is set in a particularly appropriate place: Hollywood. The whole matter, in fact, developed in the very well known American metropolis: For years, Tom Kummer, an author who lives in Los Angeles, invented interviews with prominent stars of show business and the cinema such as Sharon Stone and Courtney Love and sold them to the Tages-Anzeiger, a newspaper from Zurich, and to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Kummer was not only creative as a liar but to justify his work he invented the term “borderline journalism”- a term which the media sector would not be able to do without nowadays. The scandal was discovered in the spring of 2000 by the news magazine Focus.

The Dog that Inherited a Fortune
After her death in Pisa, the countess Carlotta Liebenstain designated her beloved German shepard dog, Gunther IV, as the sole heir to her estate of 137 million lira (around 100 million Swiss Francs). When the news broke in 1992, it quickly made its way around the world. Televisions sent troupes to the house of the administrator, Maurizio Mian, who was hosting the dog in that period, “to film a day in the life of the richest dog in the world” complete with an interview “with the cook hired only to prepare Gunther’s daily meals”. Three years later the spokesman of the Gunther Foundation revealed: “We have been kidding you”. Everything was just a joke to publicize the Gunther Foundation, which indeed exists and promotes humanitarian initiatives.

Michael Born: Another Serial Falsifier
Born succeeded, between 1991 and 1995, in falsifying about fifty television contributions that were transmitted by Stern TV for RTL. He also produced some material for Spiegel-TV, Vox, Sat-1, ProSieben and for the Swiss DRS. Among his numerous falsifications, the most noteworthy are the one in which bombardments of the PKK were staged in some vacation resorts in Turkey and the one in which he invented a report on a German cell of the Ku-Klux-Klan. When Born was unmasked, he ended up in jail. After his release, he expressed his intention to shoot a satirical movie about mass media manipulation.

The Cooke Case
The article appeared in September 29th 1980 in the Washington Post and earned the Pulitzer Prize. The story of “Jimmy, eight years old, a third generation heroin user, a premature baby with sandy-colour hair, velvety dark eyes and signs of needles that mark the smooth skin of that thin dark arm”, he could not leave American public opinion indifferent. This was invented masterfully, oriented to the most classical news values. The report caused a real mobilization of the people: Jimmy’s life had to be saved. After a period in which Janet Cooke hid behind the right not to reveal her own journalistic sources, she finally admitted to having invented the whole story. The journalist presented her resignation and the prestigious Washington Post, humiliated by this incident, returned the Pulitzer.

The Führer’s Diary
Another spectacular deception involving the diaries of Adolph Hitler occurred in nearby Germany. Konrad Kujau, a dealer of Nazi heirlooms, succeeded in selling the manuscripts of the Führer, falsified by Kujau himself, to the magazine Stern for several million marks. The news was followed by important newspapers like the Sunday Times, New York Times and Newsweek. At first, several historians appraised the documents as authentic – but later assessments proved their falsity.

Schütz, a Falsifier with a Mission
One of smartest serial falsifiers operated at the beginning of the last century. Between 1911 and 1931, Arthur Schütz – engineer and inventor- sold numerous false news stories about “the most gruesome technical absurdities” to journalists who, unaware, published them. He dished up the products of his own imagination to editors, who purchased them in good faith: he invented oval wheels, insulating copper, carburettors for locomotives and a lot of other “high tech” gimmicks. The work of Schütz had a pedagogic purpose: he wanted, in fact, to disclose the incompetence of the journalists, their fictitious universal knowledge and to fight the presumed authoritativeness of the press.

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