Haunted by loss and made resentful by years of under-appreciation, a once-idealistic journalist dedicated to finding and telling the truth turns against his ethical basis. Shunning the quest for objectivity and reportorial remove, veteran print and broadcast war correspondent Mark Scribner, lead character of my new graphic novel THE STRINGER, yields to his darkest temptations in exchange for fame and fortune.
That’s what the book, with illustrations by Pablo Callejo, is about. But is it possible? It’s one thing for a journalist to make a mistake. That’s inevitable. But can they throw out basic morality altogether? Absolutely.
Journalism does its best to circle the wagons when one of its own goes rogue, which is why the reading and watching public isn’t always aware that the reason that what they see on the news isn’t always true is sometimes due to personal corruption. Journalists keep each other’s secrets.
Scribner doesn’t succumb, at least I don’t think he does, and I probably should know since I invented him, to drug or alcohol abuse. But drugs were and are a big part of the coping mechanism for some conflict reporters. One very well-known television war correspondent – if you watch the news, I guarantee you have seen him — is widely known in the business as a junkie. His beat takes him to countries where heroin is cheap and widely available, and he partakes regularly. And he’s hardly alone.
One correspondent assigned to the Middle East found that she couldn’t handle the stress of traveling to exceptionally dangerous areas without getting her fix first. “I would never get into that car to go to a place like that unless I was zonked out of my mind,” she told me. I’m not a particularly judgemental person, but even if I were, I have to concede that she had a point.
One threat to journalistic integrity is laziness. Jayson Blair, The New York Times reporter who infamously made up quotes and stories from his apartment in Brooklyn, seems simple enough to have had the drive to get off his ass and report. I knew another reporter from the same newspaper who had every opportunity to legitimately go out into the field and collect quotes, but unlike young Mark Scribner at the fire in Cincinnati, he preferred to fabricate them and kick off for beers early. As far as I know, he’s still there.
You might ask, since I knew about such rascals, did I speak up? The answer is no, typically because I’m not a rat and also because I knew nothing would really change as a result. When the Times published a long article shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks about the strategic importance of the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, I was drawn to a detailed description of the strategic border between the country and neighboring Afghanistan, then governed by the Taliban. I called a friend who was an editor there about it to point out the fact that the countries don’t have a border. A couple of days later, the paper ran a brief retraction about the absentee border, but the reporter remained even though he had clearly made up the story wholesale and had never been to this fictional place.
Then there was the colorful account of riding the new train line between Turkmenistan and Iran that appeared in a travel magazine. I was really interested in the story because I wanted to take that train myself the next time I went to Central Asia. Problem was, it didn’t exist yet. According to the authorities, it should’ve been finished years earlier. But it wasn’t.
Journalists sometimes succumb to the grandiose desire to break a big story even though they haven’t actually come across one. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her obviously ridiculous 1980 portrait of an eight year old heroin addict. Sabrina Erdeley‘s 2014 “A Rape on Campus” in Rolling Stone had to be retracted after it turned out that her sourcing was a mess and that the horrific events described within may not have happened at all.
Then there’s the oldest motivation of all: money. In 2005 the George W. Bush administration used public funds to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to three conservative commentators in order to promote White House policy.
Probably the closest any reporter has come to Mark’s rock-bottom morality was Judith Miller of The New York Times. Miller broke one rule after another during the Bush administration’s propaganda campaign to gin up support for invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, completely subverting the most basic ethical guidelines regarding objectivity and conflicts of interest, to hobnob with the right wing proponents of invading Iraq and run their lives as fact in the Paper of Record. It is true, as she has since argued, that we didn’t invade the country because of her. But she played a large role in the murder of over 1 million people, serving as a brazen propagandist in the nation’s most influential newspaper for a completely baseless military attack on a country that had done nothing wrong to the United States and had no intention or ability to do so.
While Mark goes further than these examples, even than Judith Miller, it’s not such a radical stretch. After all, journalists are only human. And humans sometimes do awful things.