Some journalistic history, if you will bear with me.
On a summer day in New York, long ago, an item appeared on the second page of the newspaper. It ran under what we would cal today a "label headline:" CELESTIAL DISCOVERIES
In the style of that time, when news traveled by clipper ship and carrier pigeon, the newspaper identified the source of the story as being "The Edinburgh Courant." The items itself was one sentence long:
We have just learnt from an eminent publisher in this city that Sir John Herschel, at the Cape of Good Hope, has made some astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description, by means of an immense telescope of an entirely new principle.
Three days passed without a word about the wonderful discoveries. Then, on page one, for three full columns, the paper reported extraordinary news under the bold heading: GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
After an elaborate buildup of flowery writing, readers were informed:
. . . We will state at once that by means of a telescope, of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle, the younger Herschel, at his observatory in the southern hemisphere, has already made the most extraordinary discoveries in every planet of our solar system; has discovered plants in other solar systems; has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fulled equal to that which the unaided eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of one hundred yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what orders of beings; has firmly established a new theory of contemporary phenomena; and has solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.
Acounts of drawings taken in the observatory -- "the engravings of the belts of Jupiter" and "the segment of the inner ring of Saturn" -- were described. So were precise details of the casting of the great lens, its diameter (24 feet), weight when polished (15,000 pounds) and estimated magnifying power (42,000 times). All couched in authoritative scientific terminology.
The story ended there. Next day brought even more startling details -- four full columns this time -- of what the astronomers actually had seen on the moon: lunar vegetation, "a forest of firs," a lake, or inland sea similar "in general outline to the Mare Nubicum of Riccoli," and finally, the great sight of life itself.
"We beheld continuous herds of brown quadruped, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more dimunitive than any species of the bos genius in our natural history." End of installment two.
The most dramatic revelation came the following day. Man-like creatures, with wings, had been clearly seen on the moon. "We scientifically denominated them the vespertilio-homo, or man-bat."
That man-bats-on-the-moon hoax, the most celebrated in journalistic history, was concocted by the reporter and the paper's publisher to build circulation for the infant paper, the first of mass appeal in America. It worked. Circulation of The New York Sun instantly soared to the largest of any daily in the world.
The year was 1835.
More than three quarters of a century later, the same newspaper was in the midst of reporting a historic calamity, the San Francisco earthquake. By then The Sun, which had become successful through a hoax, had become famous the world over as a merchant of truth. It was the pride of the profession, the so-called "newspaperman's newspaper," the repository of the brightest journalistic talents in the nation.
Generations of readers, who knew nothing about that early hoax, had come to believe in its motto: "If you see it in The Sun it's so."
As the fragmentary and tragic news came in from San Francisco, the grizzled night editor, the fabled "Boss" Clarke, a legendary figure in America's newsrooms, quietly made the rounds of his editors.
He wanted to make sure they kept all unchecked rumors reported from the scene out of the paper. "You can be sure we'll get the one that says looters are cutting off the fingers of the dead women to get their rings," he told them. "I've been spiking that canard ever since the Johnstown flood."
Scarcely an hour later, he sidled up to his editors with a flimsy of telegraph copy from one of his reporters in San Francisco.
"That she be," he said, waving the report about looters cutting off women's fingers to get rings. Then, with a flourish, he spiked it.
American daily newspaper journalism has come a long way since that moon hoax, and the story of a paper like the old Sun shows how its standards, practices and traditions evolved over the decades. Engraved in the business for more than a century now has been one cardinal principle -- believability. As Joseph Pulitzer of The New York World used to drum into his editors and reporters, there was only one final test for a journalist: "accuracy, accuracy, accuracy."
Being wrong was bad enough (and we all face that problem regularly in this fallible business filled with daily deadline pressures) but the unpardonable sin was knowingly publishing an untruth. Even more inconceivable was the creation of a story out of whole cloth.
That's why the hoax committed by Janet Cooke of this newspaper, which now takes its place among journalism's most notorious episodes, struck at everyone, everywhere in the business -- and with, of course, particular force within out walls. It has left a grevious open wound that will be long in healing and never, I believe, forgotten. Nor should it be.
The question is whether this tragic incident is an aberration or represents a broader problem. Elsewhere in these pages appears a lengthy examination of how this story sprung to such sorry life and was handled within. Let me offer, as someone who grew up in the business and has labored in it for a quarter of a century, more general observations.
I believe today's young journalists, those of the age of the Janet Cookes, are the best prepared intellectually and educationally, the most professional, serious and dedicated ever to grace American newspapers. But I also believe fundamental values of the news business are in jeopardy.
Entertainment and gossip intrude into the news process, and sometimes overwhelm it. The mystique of "investigative reporting" and its cloak of anonymous sources is becoming a license for distortion. No source -- ever -- is so confidential that I, as an editor of a critical story, should not have privy to it. If the reporter chooses not to accept that condition, he is welcome to work elsewhere. Certain techniques of the so-called "New Journalism" (an arrogant term when it was first adopted literally a century ago, and equally pretentious now) are eroding public trust in the reliability of reporting. Example: an article some years ago in New York Magazine, purporting to be a profile of a prostitute and her pimp, turned out to be "composite" characters and the quotes "composite" of supposed interviews -- and this practice was defended then as a way to a greater truth. The "docudramas" that pollute television mask as believable accounts of historic episodes when they are not; if Harry Truman didn't actually say it, well, make up his quotes anyway.
Most important, in all the rush to meet today's complex deadlines, in the age of television, in the "now generation," we tend to treat news as if it stands in splendid isolation, events that take place without relationship to yesterday or tomorrow. Thus, we are in danger of losing sight of what should be journalism's most valued tradition, crafted painfully over the years -- that of looking at news with the hardest of skeptical eyes.
It's a simple enough tradition. If you've got the slightest doubt about the story, follow "Boss" Clarke's example of long ago. Just say, Thar she be, and spike it.