Of course, "confessed" isn't really the right word since he didn't seem too repentant about it.
Since the press seems to be in full-disclosure mode these days, I want to finally come clean. Back when I worked for the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette (now the Niagara Gazette), our city editor asked me to find out what tourists thought about an amazing local event: Engineers had literally "turned off" the famous cataracts, diverting water so they could shore up the crumbling rock face. Were visitors disappointed to find a trickle rather than a roar? Or thrilled about witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime stunt?
I never found out. Oh, I went down to the falls, all right, but when I got there, I discovered that I just could not wander up to strangers (even dorky ones wearing funny hats and knee socks) and ask them for their personal opinions, however innocuous. It was a puffball assignment, but that wasn't why I rebelled. I just could not bring myself to do it.
So I sat on a park bench and scribbled out a few fake notes and then went back to the office and wrote my fake story, no doubt quoting someone like Jane Smith from Seattle, honeymooning with her husband Oscar, saying something like, "Gosh, I never knew there was so much rock under there!"
Of course, I got away with it.
He goes on to make excuses about being only 19 when it happened. When the column was published, my dad put Mitchell right in his place with this letter to the media trade website, Poynter: (emphasis mine)
Greg Mitchell implies that being just 19 and new to the job is an excuse for a journalistic travesty (and that's just what it was). Where did he ever get the idea that lying was journalism? Who taught him that? I don't know what journalism school he went to, but mine (Grady, UGa) instilled in me that even fathoming such a hoax would be an abomination. But he actually did it, mainly, it seems, out of journalistic cowardice. One wonders how he ever got a quote from the parents of a kid killed in a traffic accident. Or did he make those up too? His ethical lapse is akin to a cop who skims from money found in a drug bust and then tries to rationalize it later because he was a rookie at the time. It's not just a mistake. It's a character flaw.
It's true, and as evidence, Mitchell has not grown out of it yet. If this guy was willing to fake a story about tourists at Niagara Falls, imagine how easy it'd be for him to do it for, I don't know, political reasons. Certainly not much of an ethical hurdle for him to jump.
In the short time I was a reporter, I covered something like 20 local deaths-- some in car accidents, some of disease, about half of them children. It was my first job out of college. Would it have been easier to make up a quote than to call a family that had just lost four children in one car accident? Yes, a lot easier. And, I was only 22, so I would have had an excuse, right? Wrong.
I wasn't a perfect reporter, but it's pretty easy to avoid making stuff up out of whole cloth.
My dad and I both know that. Mr. Mitchell does not.
My dad and I are both conservative bloggers. Mr. Mitchell is editor of Editor and Publisher. Telling, isn't it?