In the spring of 1997, Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith paid tribute to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko, who had just died. "The myth of the man was very much anchored in the real world," Smith wrote. "It is his Slats Grobnik, the quintessential everyman, who will miss him most."
Whatever in the world Smith was talking about, it is an interesting irony that a year after she saluted Royko and his fictitious barstool philosopher, the Globe asked her to resign for writing about people who were not at all anchored in the real world.
This year, 2005, several newspaper columnists have gotten in trouble for introducing some fiction into their work. Which raises a question: How much fabrication is permissible in a newspaper column-if any?
Diana Griego Erwin left The Sacramento Bee when her editors began asking questions about columns populated by pseudonymous characters. Erwin said she was protecting her sources' privacy. The paper said the existence of these sources could not be verified.
Mitch Albom was suspended from the Detroit Free Press for pre-writing a column about a couple of pro players who flew to St. Louis to watch their collegiate alma mater play in the Final Four round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Unfortunately for Albom, Michigan State alumni Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson were no-shows-they never made it to the game.
Keith Swain, a community columnist for the Denver Post who does not consider himself a professional journalist, did something similar: He wrote a column about an anti-gay demonstration that sounded for all the world as if he were describing events he had witnessed. It turned out he wasn't there.
The disturbing thing about these incidents is not that these columnists broke the rules. They could have acknowledged that they took shortcuts, apologized for having done so and promised never to do it again-and many people might have forgiven them.
Or, they could have argued that columnists are not, in fact, subject to the same rules as reporters and never have been. As journalism professor Norman Sims has written, not only are columnists exempt from the no-first-person, no-opinions constraints that bind reporters, they have also felt free to invent characters, possibly beginning with George Ade, who created a cast of characters for the Chicago Record at the turn of the last century.
Instead Erwin, Albom and Swain all wrote "apologies" that are so half-hearted and muddle-headed one wonders if they even understood what the issue was.
Albom described what he did as "a careless mistake"-which made it sound like his only sin was using the past tense when he meant to use the conditional. In fact, Albom gambled that the event he described would take place, and lost when it did not. He claimed that Cleaves' and Richardson's presence at the game was "hardly the thrust of the column," yet he devoted his first three paragraphs to their being there.
Even more disturbing, in its way, was the last line of the column: "You looked around the stands Saturday, and you realized the truth." Albom hasn't looked around the stands and realized the truth yet-at least, not in print. The column suggested he was reporting on his own behavior and reactions while at the game. This was not anticipating what was likely to happen in the same way as he was anticipating Cleaves' and Richardson's flying to St. Louis for the game; this was pure invention. We may grant a columnist license to engage in that sort of invention, but we must acknowledge that that is a lot of license to grant.
Keith Swain, in what would be his final column for the Denver Post, described the actions of a group of protesters who allegedly harassed a group of children outside a church. "Some readers may have taken the impression from my April 6 column that I witnessed the anti-abortion, anti-gay demonstration described in the column," Swain wrote in an "author's clarification." "I was not at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral on that Palm Sunday, and based the column on reports related to me by people who saw the events firsthand and whose observations I trust."
The words "some readers may have taken the impression" suggests that readers misread what Swain wrote or, at worst, he inadvertently misled them. But the column doesn't just describe what Swain's trusted observers saw. It also describes his reactions: "I wanted to shout at the protesters. But my calmer thoughts prevailed. I know that a shouting match on a public sidewalk, something I have done in the past, tends to be ineffective." This passage unambiguously suggests that Swain almost confronted the protesters, but thought better of it. This goes beyond literary license. We can forgive Swain, an amateur, for playing so fast and loose with the truth in the column; by the time he wrote his clarification, though, he knew better.
A few years ago, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists decided columnists needed their own code of ethics. The decision reflects an awareness that some columnists may think that what they do is so different from what reporters do that the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics does not apply to them. But on the subject of fact and fabrication, the NSNC code differs only slightly from SPJ's: "I will never make up a quote, a source or a story when depicting true events," it says. "But I will reserve the right to engage in parody and satire."
Slats Grobnik was admissible under the parody and satire exclusion. Claire, a fictitious cancer patient quoted in one of Patricia Smith's columns, was not. Neither was Albom's column about the game that hadn't been played yet, or Swain's column about the protest he didn't see.
Columnists can do a lot of things reporters can't do. Passing off fiction as fact isn't-or shouldn't be-one of them.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005 (17:1),pp.7,19.