Just days before the dastardly Miss Janet Cooke and The Washington Post bespattered the elegant gray robes of the fourth estate by hoodwinking a hapless Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board, there appeared in The Wall Street Journal a swell piece about bogus news stories. It is perhaps tasteless of me to mention this, but the piece concluded the journalistic hoaxes are rare today because journalists are so "serious."
Actually, it is because many are so absurdly serious that bogus news stories appear all the time. Moreover, if these news stories coincide with the pious predilections of other journalists, they take on a life of veritable immortality. Who doubts that, despite Janet Cooke's downfall, there remain earnest journalists and readers solemnly believing that there really is a little black boy gripped by a $50-a-day heroin habit somewhere?
Many journalists consider themselves adepts in the wonder of social science, a pretension that rattles their vision. Thus when they report news stories, they are bowed down by all the bugaboos and primitive myths that idiotize third-rate graduate students sweating to please their haughty profs. Of course they heave up news stories that are severely biased; they also heave up outright fabrications. I know. Occasionally I have retold such news stories, only to be corrected by careful readers.
The touching piety of many of our journalists and their faithful adherence to quack liberalism makes them prime suckers for hoaxes and, occasionally, willing hoaxers. My favorite journalistic legend is the Eatherly story a story that went through many recastings and has endured for more than three decades. The hoax began when a larcenous dissipater recently discharged from the Army Air Corps, Maj. Claude Robert Eatherly, palmed himself off on a credulous reporter as the highly decorated (the Distinguished Flying Cross) World War II pilot who had bombed Hiroshima and -- hounded by guilt -- entered into a life of self-destructive petty crime. He became an instant media hero, and a sensation with the peace movement. He was awarded the 1962 Hiroshima Award "for outstanding contributions to world peace," and one of England's "Angry Young Men" composed a poem whose last lines sobbed, "Say nothing of love or thanks, or penitence: Say only 'Eatherly, we have your message.'"
Alas, the true message was that many journalists yearn to believe what soothes their troubled spirits. Eatherly had no Distinguished Service Cross. He had never commanded the Hiroshima bombing mission and had never harmed the hair of a Japanese head -- at least not in combat. All he had done was fly a navigaton plane over Hiroshima collecting information on weather conditions. Yet in 1978, when Eatherly finally gave up the ghost, The New York Times dutifully reported that in 1945 he had "radioed the B29 Enola Gay to drop its atomic bomb." The Times retold all the ancient claptrap about Eatherly's tortured conscience. And there was a new twist appropriate to the ideological hypochondria of our day, namely: a link between Eatherly's alleged military exploits and his death from cancer.
As for more recent bogus reports, consider the story on CBS's ""60 Minutes" a year ago, the burden of which was that Henry Kissinger had once schemed with the shah to raise world oil prices, enabling the shah to buy more weapons. Things were also amiss in Seymour Hersh's dubious contortions on Chile, as he now admits, and in his Aug. 12, 1973, story asserting Nixon, two days after his 1969 inauguration, "personally authorized a secret Marine Corps" invasion of Laos. In recent months, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Boston Globe carried erroneous stores on El Salvador based on a bogus document. Who is deceiving whom when these stories are written, I do not know, but that they are abundant with artifice grows clearer as the clock ticks.