NY Times Magazine Editor on Vargas Tale: Come On, Lying's Hardly 'Unprecedented in Journalism'

Over the weekend, NPR’s On The Media found that the New York Times was so fascinated by self-proclaimed illegal alien activist Jose Antonio Vargas and found his story so compelling, the credibility of the author was not an issue. New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Hugo Lindgren (that "great magazine head") said all the lying about his citizenship is not an issue for journalists:

That's something that's come up today. You know, people say, you know, you lie about one thing and people can't stop lying if they do that. And I think some of that misses the point. This is not unprecedented in journalism. This is not the first person who's ever told a lie who then goes on to write about it.

"The point" not to be missed is political: the injustice isn't the lying, Lindgren is saying, it's the system that "forces" illegals to lie. Substitute host Mike Pesca then turned to San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein for a more “ambivalent,” less cynical take on lying:

BRONSTEIN: Jose, who I really like and I consider a friend, nonetheless basically told me the day before he came out in this article, look, I did this story when I worked for The Chronicle about illegal immigrants in the Mission District of San Francisco, buying fake driver's licenses, at the same time that he had a driver's license which he obtained with phony documents. So there's a [Laughs] -- there's a fundamental conflict there where, you know, full disclosure would normally be required. But since no one but Jose knew about it, it wasn't required and we didn't get it.

MIKE PESCA: But did Jose say, at the time, that he didn't want to report on such issues, issues that there would be a conflict?

BRONSTEIN: He said that he himself decided at the time that that was just too much of a conflict and he wasn't gonna report on it again. So I'm not sure he recused himself from covering that topic entirely. And it's a very slippery slope because what's he gonna tell his editor? I, I don't want to do immigration stories anymore? That generally is not a very popular kind of approach when you're a young journalist.

In fact, Vargas reported four stories on immigration at the Chronicle. At least Pesca cited Jack Shafer’s complaint that journalists shouldn’t lie to their editors:

PESCA: "There's something about this guy" -- this is Jack Shafer writing -- "something about this guy does to make a journalist's nose itch." Did you have that itchy feeling?

BRONSTEIN: I do, and my inclination is not to want to have it, ‘cause I know Jose and I've followed his career over the years and I have, you know, advised him on occasion. But I - I think that he is a consummate self-promoter. That's one of the ways that he was able to survive, you know, with this sort of big secret hanging over him.

You know, Phil Bennett, the former managing editor of The Washington Post, did not agree with Marcus Brauchli, the current editor of The Post. Phil thought that it was a courageous thing to do, that, that it was very troubling that he lied to people at The Post and elsewhere but that, you know, this was the right thing for Jose to do and there was a greater good involved.

PESCA: I would just submit that there are understandable or even laudable stances for individuals to take that would at the same time also disqualify them from being journalists, no?

BRONSTEIN: Yeah, and I think that Jose has disqualified himself from being a journalist. He's now an advocate. So at a minimum I wouldn't hire him.

Bronstein added with a laugh that at most media outlets, lying about your citizenship status isn’t the worst offense: “You know, which is worse for journalism, a plagiarist or somebody like Jose who’s lying about his residency? I think probably plagiarism [laughs], you know, would still be seen as the more egregious sin in our profession.”

Earlier on TimesWatch: Hugo Lindgren insists Lori Berenson terrorism whitewash is a "classic Times Magazine story"

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis