John Leo

Reluctance to change a popular story line helps account for the strange press coverage of Cindy Sheehan. That line pitted moral mom versus stone-hearted president. When Ms. Sheehan's outbursts grew stranger, the press stayed with the soft line about a mother's grief and simply omitted her increasingly bizarre comments that American troops were "being sent to kill innocent people" in Iraq and that President Bush was "a filth spewer" and "an evil maniac" guilty of "blatant genocide."

The insurgents who killed her son Casey, on the other hand, were "freedom fighters." Few of these little verbal grenades made it into the mainstream press. Sometimes a narrative line is so powerful it can resist even a massive array of facts. When Rigoberta Menchu's account of class and ethnic warfare in Guatemala was revealed to be largely false, many professors and critics said this didn't matter much because her book contained emotional truth. If it's good for the Left and since it won her a Nobel Prize, who cares if she made it up?

Ms. Menchu's black-and-white depiction of villainous landowners and virtuous oppressed peasants was too simple — the landowners often cooperated with the peasants. The great land struggle she described between her father and the wealthy landowners was actually between her father and his in-laws. Her allegedly poor and oppressed father had title to 6,800 acres of land. Liberal sociologist David Stoll interviewed 120 people in Ms. Menchu's hometown and revealed an astonishing amount of mendacity. But her book "I Rigoberta Menchu" is still revered and studied on campuses across the country. The narrative line is useful.

After the Tawana Brawley hoax was exposed, the Nation magazine ran an article saying that "in cultural perspective, if not in fact, it doesn't matter whether the crime occurred or not," since the pattern of whites abusing blacks is true. Whatever.

The "fake but accurate" argument pops up now and then in the wake of campus rape hoaxes. After a falsely accused male student was cleared, one feminist said, "I wouldn't have spared him the experience," meaning that the case was a useful teaching instrument about male behavior. Whether the rape had actually occurred was of lesser interest.

The "almost doesn't matter" argument surfaced in the Duke case too. At the mostly black North Carolina Central University, student Chan Hall spoke for many when he said the lacrosse players should be prosecuted for rape "whether it happened or not," to provide "justice for things that happened in the past."

The Brooklyn College professor, K.C. Johnson, who has blogged for months on the Duke case at his Durham-in-Wonderland site, pointed out that no prominent officials in Durham bothered to distance themselves from such comments. He wrote that among academics and reporters "because black people in the South have been wrongly convicted in the past, it is wrong to worry if whites, or Asians, or Hispanics are railroaded for political reasons today."

Several journalists have tried an "emotional truth" defense when caught concocting stories. Patricia Smith, for instance, fired from her job as a Boston Globe columnist after repeatedly writing about imaginary people and faking interviews, said in her heart she felt her stories were true. Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said, "You get the sense reading her apology that she has the mentality of an artist who's talking about truth with a capital T, but journalism is fundamentally about nonfiction."

We now live in a docudrama world in which techniques of fiction and nonfiction are starting to blur. Many reporters think objectivity is a myth. They see journalism as inherently a subjective exercise in which the feelings and the will of the journalist function to reveal the truth of what has occurred. Two results are the emotional commitment to powerful but untrue story lines, and a further loss of credibility for the press.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Be the first to read John Leo's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.