Misconduct and The Wire

Season five of the critically acclaimed TV show The Wire tackles the issue of journalistic fraud and misconduct. In particular, Scott Templeton, a young ambitious journalist at the Baltimore Sun, writes a series of articles where he embellishes details, conjures up quotes out of thin air and ultimately fabricates events. His articles win him wide praise among those in the journalism community. He also garners the Pulitzer Prize, one of the highest accolades one can earn in the field. Even though flags are raised by some of his peers at the Baltimore Sun, at the upper management level, Scott Templeton’s stories are celebrated with enthusiasm.

Of course The Wire is fictional, but at the time The Wire was written, there was precedent for such journalistic falsification. Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Janet Cooke at the Washington Post and Jayson Blair at the New York Times had all been found guilty of journalistic misconduct associated with either plagiarism or fabrication in effort to advance their careers. Cooke was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her stories, which she eventually returned.

The reason I bring this all up is because I saw a very strong parallel between the fictional events that occurred in The Wire surrounding Scott Templeton and the actual events that occurred with respect to Jan-Hendrik Schon. In both cases, their notebooks were empty, there were claims by both that their information (e.g. data and notes) had somehow been corrupted and their sources were a closely guarded secret. While working at Bell Labs, Schon famously claimed to use the evaporator in Konstanz, Germany, so that he could “work” in isolation, making it more difficult to for others to reproduce his methods.

The question as to why this kind of misconduct takes place is an interesting one. In the case of Jayson Blair, Wikipedia says:

On the NPR radio show Talk of the Nation, Blair explained that his fabrications started with what he thought was a relatively innocent infraction: using a quote from a press conference which he had missed. He described a gradual process whereby his ethical violations became worse and contended that his main motivation was a fear of not living up to the expectations that he and others had for his career.

As can be gleaned from the quote above, there is little doubt that there is a certain amount of careerism and elevated expectation that is tied in with these instances of misconduct. That these and similar cases occur with relative frequency and happen in different fields suggests that the root cause is societal — an emphasis on perceived career success rather than valuing honesty and hard work. Because this is a sociological problem, all of us have a role to play in correcting it. The solution to the problem may require us to emphasize different values: integrity, meaningfulness of labor and honest motivations. Often these are not the qualities that advance one’s career, but this is because of a lack of emphasis on these values. Perhaps they should.

While the Wire is a fictional show and some readers are no doubt a little fed up with my frequent references to it, I do think that one can learn a lot from its main themes. As Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, said:

That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.

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