Truth and Consequences

Truth and Consequences

The Boston Globe's sensational story on a well-respected historian's penchant for lying was irresponsible and unfair

By Jack Beatty

No one who works in the media can be happy with The Boston Globe's recent exposure of Joseph Ellis as a prevaricator. Ellis, the Mount Holyoke history professor who has admitted to lying to his students about his past, holds no public office. Mount Holyoke is a private institution. Ellis won the Pulitzer Prize this spring for his book Founding Brothers, and he gave an interview to The Boston Globe in which he repeated the false claims he had made in the classroom about serving in Vietnam and also lied about being part of the anti-war and civil-rights movements. This is as close as he comes to being a "public figure," the long-standing journalistic threshold for giving someone the Ellis treatment. Under the Globe standard, if you tell lies about your own life in your private-sector job, if you repeat them to a Globe reporter, and if you win recognition for work in no way impaired by these ethical lapses, you are enough of a public figure for a front-page mugging.

Norman Mailer, a Pulitzer winner, has spent a career boasting of his prowess as a lover. Will the Globe now interview his lovers to test his veracity about his virility?

If the Globe had found that Ellis had falsified material in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, that would have provided a public peg to look into his on-the-job tale-telling. But, on the contrary, the historians quoted by the Globe unanimously said that his scholarly work was beyond reproach.

The Globe has done this before. Several years ago, Walter Robinson, the author of the Ellis exposé, saw Raymond Flynn, the former Boston mayor, on a North End street, adjudged him drunk, and told the world about the encounter in a long investigative piece published a few months later that focused on Flynn's alleged propensity for public drunkenness in Rome, during his stint as ambassador to the Vatican. The day Flynn ran into Robinson was a hot one, and Flynn admitted drinking several glasses of red wine. But whether sober, lightheaded, or drunk, Flynn had the right to be left alone. He was breaking no law. True, he was still ambassador at the time, but his tenure was winding down, and he was in private life when the Globe ran the story. Criticized for abusing its power, the Globe said the North End story was justified because there was mention of Flynn as a possible candidate for governor, so his alleged intemperateness was a legitimate public issue. "We have a responsibility to inform our readers about both his public behavior and his performance record in a public post," Matthew Storin, the Globe's editor, told The New York Times. Why, then, did the Globe discard these responsible-sounding (though to my mind disingenuous) criteria—"public behavior," "performance record in a public post"—in going after Ellis, whose case did not meet them?

With Ellis an editor mindful of the responsibility of power would have asked, "What criteria of exposure are we using here? Ellis claimed he was in Vietnam or led his students to believe he was there. He told our reporter he was there. He said he scored the winning touchdown in a high school football game. For these sad self-inflations, with no malign consequences, we expose the man? We are the ones creating the malign consequences! Who among us has not done the same or worse? Joseph Ellis is a human being. With no pecuniary motives, he deceived people about his own life, something every adult does to varying degrees, whether often, sometimes, or rarely. But never? Never? And we don't even know the circumstances. Ellis is known for the you-are-there quality of his historical writing. Maybe this was you-are-there teaching. Privacy includes the right to fabulate. We don't expose a private citizen because he tells war stories. That would be an abuse of our First Amendment privilege." In my view the Globe should have put Ellis on notice: we know you were not in Vietnam, and if you tell future students or interviewers that you were, and we find out, we will publish our story. If Ellis then stopped lying, the Globe would have achieved the same end, but without ruining Ellis's reputation. Once the option of a warning was discarded, and I don't want to believe that no one suggested it, the Globe had the choice of spiking the story as lacking a public hook or publishing it and destroying a man's reputation as an end-in-itself.

Analysts offer various explanations for the public's widespread contempt for the media. My own hypothesis is that Americans distrust unanswered power of the kind the Globe deployed against Joseph Ellis—power exercised without responsibility, without regard for the consequences of its use, wielded to reduce a man's life to its most shameful moments. Media apologists say, We are the working out on earth of Freedom of Speech; we act for the public. But media institutions act for themselves. Profit comes first with them. Business imperatives drive stories like the one on Ellis. The media is the only business whose competitive dynamic is protected by a constitutional amendment. We citizens have First Amendment rights; the media has First Amendment privileges. We have speech, they have power. The media has constitutional protection against the government, but, as the drive for profit sanctions more and more lurid snooping on ordinary citizens, we need protection against the media.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/07/truth-and-consequences/303149/