Thursday's revelation that the Los Angeles Times and its Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter had been duped into believing forged FBI documents that linked Sean "Puffy" "Puff Daddy" "P. Diddy" Combs to a shooting of the late rapper Tupac Shakur in 1994 is just the latest in a long recent list of sad moments for journalism.
Because now, not only do reporters have to worry about their sources' agendas or abilities to spin, they now also have to be forensic scientists to sniff out the malevolence that leads sources of information to engage in the subtlest and most exquisite forms of deception. Journalists, while sophisticated, skeptical and world-weary, are not scientists; they know not from font and paper dating or analysis of computer vs. typewriter. And I say hurray for that! I would far rather have an experienced, knowledgeable reporter with a gift for reading facial expressions and tone of voice who knows his or her way around a motive to decide what information I receive.
And this is not to take away from the genius of "The Smoking Gun" at ferreting out the fraud. I'm thrilled that this merry band of document experts has the persistence and expertise to let us know when we've been had. But it's just not reasonable to expect all reporters to jump through such hoops when they're on to a story where every other indication is that it's accurate.
And let us also remember that we cannot expect the 24-hour news cycle, the glut of news sources in print, on the air and online, and years of cost-cutting -- which have been particularly deep and damaging at the LA Times -- not to have consequences. The jolly editors and publishers who put on a stiff upper lip and vow always to "do more with less" (unless they quit, as many at the LA Times have done) are stringing us along: you can't do more with less; in fact, you can't even do as much with less. The fact that the LA Times, which has been gutted in recent years, is still coming out with an originally generated front page each day is a miracle.
I am in no way excusing the mistake. Mistakes in reporting are horrible (ask any editor or reporter who has had to compose a front-page correction for a story gone bad) -- and particularly painful when someone's reputation has been sullied.
But, the trust relationship between a reporter and his or her source has been the basis for stories for decades. And while the LA Times continues to investigate its procedures -- and should -- and, one would hope, take steps to try and minimize the likelihood of such a scam happening again, no newspaper or broadcast outlet (witness, CBS and the end of Dan Rather's career due to the last highly publicized episode of forged documents) can guarantee its immunity from fraud.
Reporters are not forensic scientists. They are human beings, who use their smarts, their instincts, their experience and their wisdom to weigh and measure the reliability of what they are told, how much weight to give it, how much of it to use and when. It is inconceivable to me that a seasoned and gifted reporter and his editor, at one of the nation's most respected and plucky newspapers just willy-nilly rushed into print with the Tupac story without thoroughly assessing the raw materials obtained.
I guess what I'm saying is as simple as no one's perfect. And I refuse to conclude that we have reached a time when reporters can't trust their sources because of a few crummy and sad examples of humanity who get a kick out of getting over on us.