Tag Archives: fabrication

Moms, don’t blame your kids for your own shortcomings

My sons did not make me a liar.

The dog ate my homework. My kids made me lie in my newspaper review. Both are wrong.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist and reporter Paige Wiser apparently was none the, when she submitted a fabricated review of a “Glee Live” concert last week and was fired for it.

Not that she was covering the war in Afghanistan or anything, but she lied in her column. In a newspaper. She lied. We cover that in the first course at Medill, “Reporting & Writing.”

She blamed her kids. When all she can really do is blame herself. She should have gotten fired. Sorry to be harsh. But this is why. It slashes the credibility of working mothers everywhere, and not just working mother journalists.

I know it sounds odd coming from a single working mother of three who is sole support. I realize I should nod my head and say I understand, send her a reassuring comment on her Twitter account. But I believe excusing her unethical behavior because she is a working mother is like excusing Anthony Weiner for exposing himself to young women online because his pregnant wife travels a lot. No, the two are not the same. They just give me the same reaction: incensed.

You cannot blame someone else for your behavior.

While a lot of women journalists, pundits and bloggers have jumped on the bandwagon to say the real problem is it is hard for working mothers to juggle everything, I cannot disagree more with that as an excuse.

Yes, it is hard to juggle it all as a working mother. Working single fathers too. But millions of us don’t take the shortcuts, do what we know is wrong professionally and ethically. Don’t lump us all together and say women cannot perform at peak because we have given birth. Or adopted. Or stepped in as a step. Or take care of an elderly parent.

Yes, it is hard to juggle it all, just as it is for men who do the same thing as single parents, like my brother Paul, a widower raising three kids and running a manufacturing company, attending every volleyball game, concert, meeting and even serving as Team Mom. Or my brother, Bill, raising five children as a widower.

When we start to trade in our kids as an excuse, we undermine all women who have been trying like hell for the last 100 years to reach parity in the workplace. To me it feels as gruesome and impossibly unlikely as saying you can’t expect a woman to attend a meeting because she may have PMS. I am offended.

Yes, I empathize. In 15 years of paying for childcare for three kids in five years without a husband in the house, I broke out in hives, panicking to the core if the phone rang at 6 a.m. Because if a sitter cancelled, I had to completely rearrange my life, get three boys to separate schools, or drop off a toddler at a friend’s so I could make it to my class at Northwestern University. Where I could not act as if any of my homelife was a problem. Continue the lecture. Teach the three-hour undergrad or seven-hour grad class.

Once I had to bring Colin and Brendan to the lecture hall with me, where they ran in and out, banging on the locked doors to get back in. It was not pretty. I have had to write newspaper and magazine columns at 3 a.m. because that was all the time I had. I have met book deadlines without any sleep because I would not tell an editor that the laundry and the wrestling tournaments took up too much of my time. I have given speeches with a few hours of sleep. But I would just do it.

I am free of that worry now. Weldon, Brendan and Colin are 22,20 and 17. They drive. They are mostly independent. My oldest graduated from college last month. I have not had to pay for childcare– except for someone to stay overnight when I travel for work and the older two are away at school– in five years.

Raising these three sons alone and working since they were 6, 4 and 1 makes me a lot of things, but it does not make me a liar. It does not make me fabricate, plagiarize or say I saw something I did not. It doesn’t make me type something I don’t know for sure and pretend something that is not true is true.

I am not saying I am a perfect parent. Or beyond reproach professionally. I have probably trimmed a lot off my performance as a mother, professor and journalist just because it is hard to excel in all arenas all the time. But I have not compromised my code of ethics.

I am in the same business as Ms. Wiser. I am a journalist. I am an author. And I teach and model for the next generation of journalists how to behave professionally. I show young women that yes, you can do it all. You don’t have to pick truth over lies. You can be successful, even with pictures of your kids all over your office.

There was another way out. This is what I would have advised Ms. Wiser: Call your editor. Say your kid is sick and you had to leave. Stuff happens. I understand completely; I am still traumatized by the memory of the itchy six weeks of chicken pox in our house the winter of 1996. And the flu the boys passed around that kept me sleepless for three days.

When something happens as it did with the Glee concert, you are transparent. After calling your editor, you are apologetic. You suggest to your editor that you find who tweeted about the end of the concert. You contact the blogger. You quote the person. You write about how you had to leave, you write your opinion based on the 75 percent of the concert you saw, and you fill in with the attributed info. And you end with the line: “Note to self: Never again.”

You keep your integrity. You keep your job. And you keep all the other working mothers in the world from rolling their eyes and muttering under our breaths that you just gave our bosses a reason to mistrust our integrity, while we silently pray that the babysitter won’t cancel so we can go to work the next day.

Having kids doesn’t give you a handicap. It makes everything a little more complicated. Not impossible. And it sure doesn’t give you a free card to do the wrong thing.

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Oprah, don’t let the liar get you down

 

Oprah, please don’t apologize. Please don’t talk about the liar ever again. You are better than this.

It is beneath you to spend so much time on someone who could not disclose that his complicated story was not a cautionary tale,  but a fairy tale altogether. And fretting over his insincerity causes me a million little anxiety attacks. 

I don’t watch Oprah in the mornings not because I don’t want to watch Oprah  in the mornings. When she airs in my market at 9 a.m. , I am either in the car on the way to work at Northwestern University’s Medill School where I teach journalism students to write the truth, or I am already standing in front of an auditorium full of students, talking about reporting,writing and telling the truth in multimedia platforms.

So I watch at 11 p.m. for many reasons, and not the least is because I am a big fan. A big grateful fan.

So I squirmed through her interview last night with James Frey, the author of the made-up A Million Little Pieces, who purports not to care much for the truth. In his Oprah interview, he sounded all Midwestern English adjunct professorish with his interpretation of reality and his Tropic Of Cancer accolades, talking about how he was really like Picasso who didn’t really look like his distorted self-portrait and that he only agreed to say it was a memoir so he could get an advance from the publisher.

What a bunch of baloney.

In spite of his writerliness, Frey tells a million little lies in the book that apparently caused Oprah her biggest headache in 25 years. And he does not look or sound like a man filled with remorse. 

I have read and heard this morning about how tricky it is to tell and vet the truth in a memoir. Just ask Greg Mortenson about Three Cups of Tea.

But the truth is telling the truth is not hard at all.

My first book, a memoir, came out in 1999. It took me three years to write the painful story of my experience with my husband who was violent.

Having been a journalist for 20 years by that time, I was excruciatingly mindful of the need to perfectly articulate the truth, as a journalist, with the details, the facts and indisputable realities bolstering my story. The publisher had lawyers. I had a lawyer. I had documents for every claim.

And my ex-husband was a litigating attorney. So I had to be sure to get it right.

Every description was accurate, every moment recalled was double-checked with another source. The idea of telling a story that was not truthful would ruin my career as a journalist, professor of journalism and slay my integrity and credibility.

It is not that I  dared not. It never occurred to me to even try.  

I was extremely lucky to be a guest on Oprah’s show in June 2002 discussing that book and my writing book as well. The path to Harpo Studios was lined with dutiful and diligent producers and lawyers. I took tough questions in scores of interviews over the weeks, months and years from 1999 to 2002 to earn the chance to have Oprah ask me questions about my books before an audience of millions. 

I cannot fathom getting to that point on the tails of a big fat lie. But that is me. Some authors and journalists apparently consider misrepresentation a marketing plan.

In my classes I tell my students about the dangers of fabrication and plagiarism, about how each journalist needs to fiercely protect the brand that is his or her own byline. I tell my students to be proud of every word that goes beneath their names and to be able to defend it vigorously. Because your words live forever.

Be genuine in your writing, I tell them, whether telling the story of a fire or telling your own story. 

I also give writing workshops, mostly on memoir, and have one slated for this summer through Northwestern. And I tell those writers eager to publish their stories that they own their own history.

So here is what I know. About writing, as a journalist. As a memoirist: You own your truth. You own the right to tell it, so you do not have to be intimidated by anyone who attempts to thwart your storytelling. Because as I wrote in my second book, writing can save your life.    

But no one can save you if you lie. You don’t have any rights to lie just so you can get a contract.

It is not tricky at all. It is a simple truth. So go ahead. Tell it.

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