Predictible Fakers

A Post review of Maliszewski's book Fakers:

Why are we so readily duped? The short answer is that con games confirm what we already want to believe. The made-up news stories and fudged memoirs fit certain "forms," as Maliszewski calls them: "Fictional journalism is essentially a careful imitation of journalistic forms. That is, the articles are convincing because they adhere closely to the unstated conventions, assumptions, and predilections of a particular publication, a particular kind of article, or a particular editor. Journalists who fake are extraordinarily sensitive to the ways in which their stories are a series of sometimes conventional, often routine forms."

Fakers derive their power from our own expectations and prejudices.  Stephen Glass's talent, writes Maliszewski, "lay less in the originality of his imagination than in his solicitous ability to seize on whatever the conventionally wise were chatting about at cocktail parties and repackage it in bright new containers, selling the palaver right back to them. Nobody was the wiser." Studied more closely, though, Glass's "wild inventions form a thin skin stretched over a fairly standard body of accepted truth and mainstream opinion. Glass's imagination is not, in other words, all that original. It is, in fact, crushingly banal. How else to explain his production of so many fabrications that deliver, in story after story, the shared assumptions of the editorial class in new and perhaps slightly surprising forms?" …

Joey Skaggs … adds that "my experience has shown me that most journalists don't want to screw up a good story with reality, and they will talk themselves out of questioning the story to death." As the saying goes, some stories are too good to check.  What fakers do, then, is simplify complexities; they feed our secret prejudices and beliefs. … Fake newspaper articles … tell us the stories we want to hear, rather than the stories that are really out there. As a result, emphasizes Maliszewski, they damage serious work, for "there are articles — real articles, these, about true subjects — that cannot be easily written or are not practical to publish simply because they don't fit one of the accepted forms."

In news, social science, and fiction consumers mainly want more vivid impressive detail to support pre-existing abstract conclusions.  To produce as much as possible, ambitious writers must be as sloppy as they can get away with.  Since news that challenges prior abstract conclusions is scrutinized more carefully, the ambitious prefer to avoid such scrutiny by avoiding abstractly-surprising news, unless it gets enough other rewards, which is rare.  And given this situation, writing about such costly news becomes a sign that you are not ambitious, and should be avoided.  These career pressures probably explain most conformity in such areas; no stronger conformity pressures are needed.

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