Lehman Brothers' Japan office is under scrutiny for making a little mistake: it lost a $350 million investment in a fraud. They thought the project they were investing in was backed by a reputable Japanese trading house, but it really wasn't. How did the scammers pull off their master plan? With fake stationery and business cards. Yes: somebody showed them some documents with an "official" company seal, handed over that genuine-looking business card, and next thing you know, $350 million! When things like this—or, say, a low-level trader at Societe General losing $7 billion by himself— happen at some of the world's top financial institutions, the impulse is to call those involved idiots or crooks. And sometimes they are. But guess what: getting scammed can be way easier than you think. And that especially goes for journalists!
Frauds always look worse from the outside. The Jayson Blair incidents at the NYT were staggering, but nobody stopped them for a long, long time. The LAT's most recent burn, when it ran a story implicating Puff Daddy in the shooting of Tupac that turned out to be based on forged documents, looks terrible, as well. How could they be so careless?
The truth is that it's not really that hard to defraud a journalist. In certain cases, reporters are on their guard against misleading or false answers: when speaking to flacks, cops, or anybody else with a vested interest in twisting a story to their own ends. But in many other cases—when there's no immediate, common sense reason to believe that someone would lie to you—reporters tend to take things at face value, relying on their own (overestimated) bullshit detector. And the public's conception of the level of fact-checking that goes on at everyday news outlets is laughable. Top-tier titles like the New Yorker aside, most newspapers and smaller magazines have no such thing as a separate fact-checking department. Reporters are the fact checkers. Editors can ask reporters questions, but again, in order for the question to occur to them, it usually has to be related to something that would plausibly be lied about. So anyone who fools a reporter well can get a fake story published, with a bit of diligent effort.
Print up some fake business cards. Set up a fake website. Get some fake stationery. Give yourself an official title, have a friend play your secretary or business associate, and you can imagine how many fake stories you could plant. The thing is, the vast majority of time, it's not something that people would do without a solid motive. And that motive would usually be enough to raise a good reporter's suspicion.
We all rely to some extent on the good will of others not to do us harm. When somebody purposely pulls a sophisticated scam—whether at a news outlet or an investment bank—lots of other people end up looking stupid. But just about anyone could be the victim. So have a heart! People are busy. Reporters are overworked, with tight deadlines. Shit happens. Only karma really protects us.
We will still participate in the inevitable outcries over future journalistic hoaxes. But we'll try to figure out who's just a poor, unlucky bastard, rather than a jerk.