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Lessons on Truth-Telling from Journalism’s Biggest Fraud

religious liberty

In 1998, one of the country’s most respected political magazines was rocked by what would eventually be dubbed “the most sustained fraud in the history of journalism.” The New Republic, boasting at the time to be the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One,” confessed to its readers in June that writer Stephen Glass had fabricated all or portions of 27 articles.

At the time of his exposure, Glass’s reporting was feverishly popular. His work “covered” everything from the bizarre to the outrageous, featuring incredible encounters with corrupt public health officials, millionaire teenage hackers, and carnal Presidential aides. Almost none of it was true. Glass had faked his way to stardom, at The New Republic and other publications.

What makes Glass’s story still arresting after more than fifteen years is the herculean effort he made to cover his tracks. Glass faked original reporter’s notes, created dozens of phony email accounts, built websites and printed business cards for people who didn’t exist, and even recruited his brother to portray an imaginary software executive. As the walls closed in around Glass’s fictions, he reached for more and more lies (the story of his exposure is told in the excellent and accurate 2003 film Shattered Glass).

How did Glass get away with it for so long? Many of The New Republic’s staff have testified since the scandal that Glass was able to avoid hard questions about his work through his ingratiating, self-deprecating demeanor with co-workers. Additionally, Glass’s stories were always fun to read. They were funny and colorful and generated positive attention for the magazine.

This isn’t just a problem for secular media. The temptation to obscure, avoid or even suppress the truth is a universally human one, one that can affect average Christians just as much as journalists. Sometimes American evangelicals have been caught proliferating outright falsehoods, like widely circulating emails about everything from the President to Harry Potter to imaginary “bans on Christmas.” Even some evangelical historians have used revisionism to generate a more pro-evangelical narrative on American history.

A few months ago an organization that produces web browsing accountability software tweeted the following: “68% of Young Guys watch porn every week; parents, this is your daughter’s dating pool.” Alarmed, I clicked the supplied link. After some careful reading, I was disappointed to discover that the 68% figure came from a Danish survey of fewer than 700 adults. The comment about “your daughter’s dating pool” was sure to generate more interest in the informational packet, even though it misled readers about the source and scope of data.

I wondered aloud why a Christian organization that is on the frontlines on the fight against porn would even feel the need to put out misleading innuendo. The reality of the scourge of pornography on churches is alarming enough without embellishment. Why even exaggerate? That’s when I thought of Stephen Glass. When Glass’s final article was published—the one that would get him caught—he was a budding superstar with freelancing contracts totaling somewhere near $50,000. Why was that 27th piece ever written? Why didn’t Glass simply rest on his laurels and start reporting on real people?

I think the answer is that sin has no cost benefit analysis. It’s part of human nature to want to bend reality a little further, or make ourselves look just a little smarter or our work just a little more important than it might be. This temptation is compounded exponentially when we think the stakes are high. For evangelicals engaged in crucial cultural conversations, the urgent nature of the work will often seem to justify obfuscations of truth, whether through sweeping generalizations, fallacious logic, or alarmist rhetoric.

Christians should not fear the truth, even when it seems to implicate ourselves or fellow believers. Earlier this month The New York Times published a piece by reporter Mark Oppenheimer featuring World Magazine, an evangelical news publication that has gained a reputation for objectivity in reporting scandals in the evangelical world. World editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky was quoted as saying, “We don’t have to cover up, because we do have faith that God forgives and saves the sinner.” Olasky is correct: The basis for Christian pursuit of truth should be the conviction that God is in control and uses the truth to redeem people.

Christians should take no part in deception, even when the facts intrude on our public or self-image. We should be on the forefront of the truth-telling business. Belief in a sovereign God is the belief that all truth ultimately points to Him, even when we cannot immediately see how that can be so. In the end, what motivates a commitment to telling even uncomfortable truths is the belief that God is both a God of truth and a God of love. Even when the facts hurt, they are meant only for the good of those that love God and are called according to His purpose.

Stephen Glass thought his fictions were better than reality. Christians know that no fiction can be better than the Gospel. The Truth is too good to not be true.

religious liberty

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