When hoax trumps truth: Will the people tell the difference?

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Let 2006 be known as "the year of the busted lie," when fictions posing as
facts were forced to come clean.

The most famous example of this trend has been James Frey, who has now seen
the end of his 15 minutes of fame. The writer of the fabricated recovery
tale "A Million Little Pieces," Frey was called out for writing a memoir
whose only real claim to fact was the author's name. After being exposed by
The Smoking Gun Web site as a fraud, even Oprah (the "queen of books"),
originally a big fan, gave Frey a solemn tongue-lashing for his lies.

Scant days before Frey was dressed down for betraying book clubs everywhere
with his fibs, another celebrated author, J.T. LeRoy, was disclosed as a
literary hoax. LeRoy, supposedly a former child prostitute living with AIDS
who started publishing at the age of 16, was revealed by New York magazine
to be the invention of a middle-aged author named Laura Albert. At public
appearances the transgendered, rock-starish character of J.T. was played by
a woman named Savannah Knoop wearing sunglasses and a wig.

In retrospect it now seems predictable that a faux Indian would be exposed
in all his rezzy fakeness. Enter Nasdijj. On Jan. 25, LA Weekly ran an
article called "Navahoax" suggesting that Nasdijj, a writer of ostensibly
mixed Navajo descent, was in fact a white man named Tim Barrus. Far from
being born in a hogan and raised by a family of migrant workers, as we
learned in his memoirs, Barrus was apparently raised in the relatively
cushy middle-class environs of Lansing, Mich., where he served on his high
school's student council and competed on the forensics squad.

Frey and Albert have endured much finger-wagging for their deceits, and now
Barrus must face the wrath of Indian intellectuals for committing the sin
of ethnic fraud. But, really, none of these developments is particularly
new. The publishing world has long lived with fabricated memoirs, literary
hoaxes: even fraudulent Indians. That's why fact-checkers exist. (Or used
to, anyway.) People will lie if you let them get away with it.

What is new about these revelations of deceit is the extent to which so few
people seem surprised by them. Apparently, Americans now expect to be lied
to.

Consider the public's growing distrust of the news media. According to a
recent CBS News/New York Times poll, only 54 percent of respondents said
they thought the news media told the truth "most of the time." 40 percent
answered "only some of the time" or "hardly ever." Surveys taken by the Pew
Research Center reveal that 56 percent think that news reports are "often
inaccurate," and 72 percent think that news agencies typically "favor one
side" rather than report objectively.

I repeat: This is the news that people are disbelieving, not the
government. As for the latter, it fared even worse. That same CBS News/New
York Times poll revealed that only 39 percent believe the statements of the
Bush administration "most" or "all" of the time. Fifty-nine percent think
they are being openly lied to by the Bushies some, if not all, of the time.

There are, of course, truckloads of reasons to distrust the president.
Unless you still believe that weapons of mass destruction are hidden in
Iraq, that Iraq bought yellowcake uranium from Niger, that Saddam and Osama
were in collusion to bring down America, that global warming is a theory,
that no one could have known those New Orleans levees were about to burst
-- well, if you do believe such things, let's just say that I've got some
cheap used memoirs by James Frey and Nasdijj that might interest you.

There's good reason to distrust the news media, too. Remember New York
Times reporter Judith Miller spinning White House war fictions as
journalism (and the fact that she was hardly alone in that endeavor)? How
about the ho-hum reception given by most news agencies to what should have
been one of the most politically explosive scoops in years -- the Downing
Street memo, proving that the Bush administration had fixed intelligence
and created facts -- that is, lied -- in order to justify an illegal
invasion of Iraq?

Jayson Blair? Stephen Glass? Bill O'Reilly, anyone? It's been a long time
since a newsman like Walter Cronkite was considered by anyone to be "the
most trusted man in America." Let alone a politician.

All of these individual instances of dishonesty, exaggeration and
bald-faced fibbing add up to a disturbing social trend that doesn't bode
well for democracy: a culture of deceit, one in which lying is not only
typical but tolerated.

Who's to blame? Certainly, on one level it's the liars themselves. But
worse than these individuals are social institutions that give the liars a
stage upon which to spin their fabrications -- namely, the corporate
industries of publishing and the press.

Publishers have a responsibility to fact-check the books they sell as
nonfiction. It's as simple as that, and they should be held accountable
when they do not. As for news agencies, when they circulate as fact
government stories that are fiction, ignore other stories that really are
true or, for that matter, "embed" reporters with military units in order to
make independent reporting impossible, they abdicate a noble responsibility
to serve as democracy's watchdog and end up contributing to the culture of
deceit.

The results are tragic. For without a vigilant publishing industry and
press, governments will do whatever they like. They'll lie if you let them
get away with it. And at that point, it's not just the truth that ends up
in a million little pieces.

No wonder Jon Stewart's "fake news" program, "The Daily Show," is now seen
by many to be a more reliable source of information than the actual news.
Like exposes of bogus memoirs that reveal how true stories are sometimes
made up, Stewart's brilliant satire is an important reminder that the
"real" news we get is often fake. Or more accurately, propaganda. That's
really what we're talking about here: propaganda.

So let 2006 be the year that propaganda was called by its name and citizens
stopped tolerating the culture of deceit nurtured by those who benefit from
it. Exposing bogus memoirists is a start, but at some point we must
confront the larger problem. The medium is the message. What should be done
about that?

Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, teaches writing, literature, and
Native American studies at Syracuse University in New York.