News and Analysis

14 Journalists Who Famously Fabricated Stories – And Three More Involved In Major Journalism Scandals

Journalism is a tough field. 

While there are more outlets today with much larger budgets than there were even 20 or 30 years ago, competition is still fierce. And the competition to be the best, to write the most exciting story, or to make the biggest waves, is even fiercer.

That struggle has led many to wholly make up sources or quotes, or even entire stories.

Below are 14 journalists who famously fabricated their stories and were subsequently caught.

Stephen Glass

Stephen Glass is perhaps the most famous example of a fabulist, hitting all three notes when it comes to faking stories. He made up sources, he made up quotes for those fake sources, and he made up entire stories. The most famous he fabricated,  titled “Hack Heaven,” led to his ultimate downfall.

As Vanity Fair reported in detail back in 1998, Glass invented a tech company called Jukt Micronics and wrote as if he witnessed its attempt to hire a teenage hacker. When Forbes began questioning the story, The New Republic, which employed Glass and published the story, started digging deeper. No one could find a company called Jukt Micronics, which Glass had claimed was a big California software company.

To aid in his deception, Glass had his brother pretend to be an executive at Jukt in order to sell it as a real company. Glass also created a cheap website for the company on his work computer. He even took his editor to the place where he said the attempted hiring had occurred, yet people there discounted his story. Glass maintained that he was telling the truth for weeks until finally admitting he wasn’t at the conference, but stopped short of admitting he had completely made up the story.

He was ultimately fired by The New Republic and, years later, attempted to become a lawyer, but his past has kept him from passing the bar.

Jayson Blair

Jayson Blair became a star reporter for The New York Times several years after Glass’s fabrications were discovered. In October 2002, however, public officials and others began questioning his reporting in relation to the D.C. sniper and other national stories, the Times reported after its investigation of Blair’s work. 

The paper discovered that he fabricated quotes and lied to editors about being in cities where events happened when he was actually far away in New York City. He also used the work of other outlets to make it look as if he had traveled for stories. Plagiarism accusations were also lodged. 

In one example, Blair wrote about two wounded Marines at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and said one had ”questioned the legitimacy of his emotional pain as he considered his comrade in the next bed, a runner who had lost part of his leg to a land mine in Iraq.” As the Times noted, Blair made up the entire scene, even the claim that he was in Bethesda. He did speak to one of the subjects, but over the phone, not in person. The subject, Lance Cpl. James Klingel, also told Times investigators that he didn’t say most of what Blair attributed to him.

In order to make it appear as though he was really in the location he claimed, Blair used descriptions from other news outlets, such as The Washington Post, without attribution.

Blair resigned from the Times in 2003.

Janet Cooke

Janet Cooke remains the only person ever forced to return the Pulitzer Prize, which she won in 1981 for her expose, “Jimmy’s World,” for The Washington Post. The story profiled an eight-year-old heroin addict in Washington, D.C., referred to as “Jimmy,” whom Cooke described in detail. 

Then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry launched a search for the young boy, but when he couldn’t be found, Barry falsely claimed the city knew who the boy was and was treating him for his addiction. The mayor announced Jimmy had died soon after.

Cooke won the Pulitzer prize for the story, but two days later, the Post admitted the story was not true. It was also discovered that Cooke lied about her credentials, claiming she had a degree from Vassar College and that she had received a master’s degree from the University of Toledo. She also claimed she had received a journalism award when she worked at the Toledo Blade. In reality, Cooked attended Vassar for only one year and only had a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toledo.

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly resigned from USA Today in 2004 after an investigation discovered “strong evidence that Kelley fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories, lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications, lied in speeches he gave for the newspaper and conspired to mislead those investigating his work.”

The paper’s investigation found that in 2000, Kelly took a photo of a Cuban hotel worker and claimed she had died while trying to flee the country by boat. The woman was actually alive and had not tried to flee the country.

The paper found that Kelly’s fabrications were “sweeping and substantial,” and wrote that evidence contradicted many of his claimed experiences, including a 2003 article where he said he had joined a high-speed hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Michael Finkel

Michael Finkel was fired from The New York Times in 2002 – nearly a year before Blair’s resignation – after he admitted to fabricating a story titled “Is Youssouf Malé A Slave?” Malé was a real person, but Finkel used information from several boys – and the photo of someone else – in his article while claiming it was a profile of just one boy.

Finkel had been investigating child slavery in Africa, but what he found didn’t support what he pitched to the Times, so he used the information he learned from multiple people to build a composite character he claimed was Malé.

Juan Thompson

Juan Thompson was fired from The Intercept in November 2015 after the outlet found he had fabricated quotes and even created an email account impersonating a fake source in an attempt to fool his editors. Betsy Reed, The Intercept’s editor-in-chief, issued a statement after Thompson was fired describing his fabrication:

“An investigation into Thompson’s reporting turned up three instances in which quotes were attributed to people who said they had not been interviewed. In other instances, quotes were attributed to individuals we could not reach, who could not remember speaking with him, or whose identities could not be confirmed. In his reporting Thompson also used quotes that we cannot verify from unnamed people whom he claimed to have encountered at public events. Thompson went to great lengths to deceive his editors, creating an email account to impersonate a source and lying about his reporting methods.”

In one example, Thompson appears to have invented a cousin of a mass shooter, who will not be named per The Daily Wire policy. Family members of the shooter said they did not know about the alleged cousin.

Jay Forman

In 2001, Slate published a sensational story from author Jay Forman, who claimed to have traveled with a “monkey fisherman” to one of the Florida Keys. Forman explained how the fisherman would stay on his boat and cast a line to Lois Key, where rhesus monkeys were allegedly being held for research. The fisherman would catch a monkey with his line and drag it into the water and back to the boat.

It sounded fantastical to many who read it, and it was quickly picked apart by multiple outlets. Forman originally defended his story from accusations that it was fake. But after The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal investigated, Forman admitted he had made up the so-called monkey fishing, but had “visited the island and taunted the monkeys from offshore,” Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote in 2007.

Shafer was prompted to write his 2007 article after Forman contacted him to admit that the entire story was fake and that he hadn’t even gone to the island.

Claas Relotius

Claas Relotius had written dozens of articles for the German newspaper Der Spiegel and won multiple awards before he resigned from the paper in 2018. 

Relotius was ultimately undone by Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, who lived in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, the setting of one of the Der Spiegel author’s stories. Relotius had claimed the city had a sign at its border with a racist message telling “Mexicans” to “Keep Out.” In a lengthy post on Medium, Anderson laid out numerous falsehoods in Relotius’ story, titled “Where they pray for Trump on Sundays.” From misreporting the basic landscape of Fergus Falls to what was playing at a movie theater to making up a coal plant employee, Anderson systematically broke down Relotius’ false reporting.

Relotius eventually confessed to fabricating stories and resigned. He also returned four of his journalism awards.

Nik Cohn

In 1976, Nik Cohn wrote an article for New York Magazine titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” purportedly about disco culture in Brooklyn. The article became the basis for the movie “Saturday Night Fever,” that propelled John Travolta to stardom. Twenty years later, however, Cohn admitted that he had fabricated his original article and based his anecdotes on people who attended clubs in England, where he was born, rather than in New York City.

Cohn, according to The New York Times, reportedly “cringes” whenever he sees the movie and “is still queasy about this chapter of his career.”

Gabriela Miranda

Miranda is the latest reporter to resign over fabricated stories, with USA Today recently announcing it had deleted 23 of Miranda’s articles following an investigation. According to the newspaper: 

“The audit revealed that some individuals quoted were not affiliated with the organizations claimed and appeared to be fabricated. The existence of other individuals quoted could not be independently verified. In addition, some stories included quotes that should have been credited to others.”

The New York Times reported that a source familiar with the investigation said Miranda had created fake evidence to support her stories, including recordings of interviews she had allegedly done. But a different person involved in the investigation disputed the claim, the Times noted, saying instead that the paper couldn’t verify the identities of some of the people Miranda had allegedly interviewed.

Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith was a metro columnist for the Boston Globe until 1998, when the paper’s editors discovered she had made up people for her columns. Smith resigned and admitted to fabricating details in four columns.

Mike Barnicle

Two months after Smith resigned from the Globe, Barnicle was forced to do the same after it was discovered that he had plagiarized lines from comedian George Carlin’s best-selling books in one of his columns. Barnicle at first claimed he had never read Carlin’s book, yet he had previously promoted it during a live broadcast. 

The Globe’s investigation into Barnicle revealed had not actually spoken to parents of children with cancer for a 1995 column. Barnicle said the story was true but that he heard it from a nurse. A woman later came forward to acknowledge the story was about her family but said some of the details were wrong.

Barnicle is currently a senior contributor for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Christopher Newton

Christopher Newton was fired by the Associated Press in 2002 after the wire service reviewed his stories and could not confirm that multiple named sources existed. He cited names of people and said they worked for real places, such as Stanford University, yet his editors could not verify the sources. In other examples, he cited unverifiable organizations, like the “Education Alliance.”

Newton claimed his stories were accurate but didn’t provide evidence. He also provided the AP with a voice message that indicated he had fallen for a hoax for one of his stories, but no one could verify the message, The Washington Post reported.

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer was a wunderkind. While still in his twenties, he published three non-fiction books and wrote for major publications such as The New York Times. In 2012, however, Lehrer was discovered to have fabricated and plagiarized quotes in his best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

Freelance journalist Michael Moynihan ultimately revealed Lehrer’s deception, after becoming suspicious of the Dylan quotes in “Imagine.” Moynihan wrote that he looked for sources for Lehrer’s Dylan quotes but couldn’t find many, and in one case discovered that Lehrer had cobbled together two different Dylan quotes – said at different times – to make a single quote.

Lehrer told Moynihan that Dylan’s manager had given him an unreleased interview with the musician from a Martin Scorsese documentary.

Lehrer originally claimed that editing was the reason some of the quotes appeared inaccurate, but said he couldn’t find all their sources. Eventually, Lehrer confessed to fabricating the quotes, but claimed he had approximated the quotes as he remembered them and forgot to replace them.

The book was recalled and Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker just two months after he had been hired.

Bonus Scandals

No list of journalism scandals would be complete without mentioning Dan Rather, Walter Duranty, and Sabrina Rubin Erdely. They didn’t wholly fabricate their stories, but they didn’t vet them and published content that was undeniably false.

Rather presented forged documents as real in an effort to blast then-President George W. Bush’s military service, prompting the famous phrase “fake but accurate.”

Duranty “reported” that there was no famine in the USSR in the early 1930s, relying on Joseph Stalin’s propaganda to bolster his claims. Nearly a century later, many still believe he should lose his Pulitzer for his reporting on the subject.

Finally, Erdely took the “believe women” mantra to the extreme when she recounted the story of a University of Virginia student who claimed to have been gang raped at a fraternity. Erdely didn’t properly vet the student’s claims, leading to multiple lawsuits against Rolling Stone, which published the story.

Ashe Schow is a reporter and columnist with bylines at the Federalist and the New York Observer. She has previously worked for Real Clear Investigations, the Washington Examiner, and the Heritage Foundation. You can follow Ashe on Twitter at @AsheSchow.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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