Gardner Museum Heist —Blog

The Boston Globe and the New Fabulism

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Part 6

Part One

Before getting directly into the new fabulism at the Boston Globe, here is a little history of the old fabulism, from about three decades ago, for background

The most well known case of fabulism in modern American journalism is mostly likely the handiwork of Stephen Glass during his stint as a features writer at the the New Republic. The dissembling exploits of this reckless young jounralist were the subject of a still talked-about 2004 Hollywood movie, "Shattered Glass."

"Two-thirds of the 41 stories he [Glass] wrote for the magazine were at least partially fabricated, the magazine acknowledged," after a thorough review, when his fraudulent handiwork came to light in 1998.

It was working so well for a while anyway, that Glass just could not lay off that banned performance enhancing drug of journalists, making stuff up, or fabulism. As a friend and colleague of Glass wrote 16 years later: "While "the rest of us were still scratching our way out of the intern pit, he [Glass] was becoming a franchise, turning out bizarre and amazing stories week after week for The New Republic, Harper's, and Rolling Stone-each one a home run."

A 1994 graduate of Penn, Glass was hired by the New Republic as an editorial assistant in 1995, but quickly moved up to writing feature stories. In the year following his hire, the vociferous complaints from some of the subjects of his stories, however, had already begun.

The news business has changed in the last quarter century, but fabulism persists. How did Glass get away with it for so long? Why was he eventually caught? Why was he eventually caught? Journalists are entrusted with a job. Some journalists violate that trust. When they are caught they face presumably consequences. But looking at how Glass was able to get away with it for so long, with so many stories, can help safeguard journalism from other fabulists and outbreaks of fabulism.

One reason perhaps that Glass was able to get away with it, was that he was punching down from the lofty heights of the New Republic. First it was Stephen Glass of the New Republic against the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). That might have actually been almost punching up, but it was the first time anyone questioned the integrity of his work, and he learned from the experience. After that his victims became smaller, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), and even smaller the College Republican National Committee, then ad hoc, an academic conference at Hofstra University about then President George H.W. Bush, in a piece called "Peddling Poppy," and then finally entirely fictional.

This is when Glass finally ran both afoul and aground. It was then, and not before this, when he fabricated a hit piece about a fictional corporation he named "Jukt Micronics," that he was finally caught.

In his telling, Jukt Micronics was a thriving member of America's nascent, but not all that nascent, high-tech sector. Glass falsely reporting how "Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates, had gotten "a big-time software firm to grovel," armed with nothing more than "a computer at his high school library,"

Glass was delivering a shot across the bow of not merely a nonexistent company, but at an entire industry, once which had already begun the process of, if not taking over the world, at least saturating it. And Glass didn't do this anonymously on an obscure hacker message board, but in a feature story in the New Republic. If Ian Restil could get away with the antics described in this story, the whole informational technology sector was vulnerable.

So what is the takeaway from the Glass case here? Is it don't light a fabulist flame? Or is it just, don't pull a Pinocchio and light one using the gut microbes of Leviathan for kindling? Because despite the shattering of Stephen Glass, and the near shuttering of the New Republic, false facts thrive, not only in conservative news media, but to a lesser, though persistantly concerning extent, in the mainstream nonconservative news media as well.

Journalism is a labor intensive and increasingly competitive profession. It's not easy to stand out in a crowd that includes experienced talent, aggregators, amatuers and cheaters, as well as other media production houses, who are competing for the attention of the same people, only a click away.

Fabulism can be one way to gain a big competitive edge, in journalism as in other aspects of public life.

The fabulism of others can be quite profitable as well as a recent case in Rhode Island shows. Dan McGowan reported for the Boston Globe, that Nicholas Alahverdian, who made international headlines for faking his own death, possibly to avoid sexual assault charges was someone, who had a horrific personal story to tell about his experience as a kid with the Department of Children, Youth and Families — one of those, “if this is true, they’ll make a movie out of it” scoops that reporters dream about.

McGowan described Alahverdian as someone who would disappear for months, sometimes years, at a time, before popping up again with a new story to tell, begging to be quoted or interviewed on television.

"The cycle would repeat itself over and over. Journalists would feed the beast that is the news cycle, and Alahverdian would get his attention fix."

It appears that Alahverdian may have been using the media mentions to establish trust with women he would meet online, whom he would then exploit in various ways.

Is there any self reflection of the media for their role in this? On the contrary, the consequences for the media outlets involved in this is more "news," more media attention, and an bigger story for their news reports and columns.

With the traditional mudslinging fabulism of Fox News, hardball playing politicians and Stephen Glass, the whole point is frequently to discredit someone or something. There is an aggression behind it. In the new fabulism, found in the Boston Globe with unwavering regularity, related to the Gardner heist, to name one example, the point is to elevate or protect someone or something. When vulnerable parties are depicted in a falsely negative light, it is not the mission, just collateral damage, the purpose is the furtherance of a false narrative serving the powerful, not in destroying the reputations of anyone or anything, vulnerable or otherwise.

"The new fabulism involves conjuring up kiss ups to the powerful, while punching down at vulnerable targets in ways that do not invite a damaging punch back, if at all."

Forbes Magazine took note of the fabulism of Stphen Glass, effectivley policing a fellow American publication, when it became anti-establishment, anti-corporate America, ("a big time software company"), and, shudder, anti-Silicon valley.

The conservative news media, such as Fox for example, have a fighting-for-you mission. Their consumers have a lower expectation of truthfulness. Sean Hannity might be a lying son of a bitch, but he's your lying son of a bitch, seems to be the pretext. Truth is a nice to have, a garnish, but not absolutely necessary to the Fox News consumer. Fox News has created a demand for right wing fabulism, and from there it has spread to other conservative media outlets, as right wing politicians catch the wave.

In contrast, the mainstream, nonconservative news media claims to be making a sincere attempt at objectivity, of being non-ideological. It strives to preserve and live up to that image. But temptations and pressures from the world they cover can and does lead to a small, perhaps still manageable amount of disinformation fidinng its way into their stories. But the pressures and temptations are growing.

News outlets have lost some of their independence. In times past, consumers would buy the newspaper just for the sports page, the comics, the advice columns, or the classified ads. Today there is a great deal of pressure for each story to pull its weight, in terms of page views and profitability, which means the stories are less now independent. They have to be telling somebody or some group of people something they want to hear. With click-counters delivering, readerships and views of their online platforms, newspapers now have much greater knowledge about what people want, and a stronger than ever need, to serve up exactly that, and not what an editor thinks is more in the public interest.

Crime and justice stories, like the Gardner heist, are a reliable profit center for news outlets. These stories are often emotionally charged, and mostly nonideological, typically with some powerless, or unsympathetic individuals at the center of them. They are less to receive the same kind of pushback from inaccuracies, less likely to undergo the kind of fact checking, partisan scrutiny, and expectations of logic and reason, that political news stories do.

In some ways, crime stories seem to exist within our world, while not being of our world. The public, fascinated and credulous, might be more interested in a good yarn, than in historical accuracy.

In addition, they are also stories that can be sustained, expanded and invigorated by leaks and access from powerful interests, in powerful institutions, within an investigation, and adjudication. And these sources can also be considered in light of their potential for assistance future stories as well. All of these factors make crime and justice stories ripe for a little or maybe more than a little fabulism.

In these stories, mistakes and misunderstandings, seem to be not so much a problem as they are an opportunity to do yet another story.

In 2019, at a Brown University ACLU panel discussion, "What Press? Whose Truth?" long time New York Times journalist C. J. Chivers said thirty years ago The Times would limit reporters to a maximum term of seven year on any particular "beat," to help ensure the independence and objectivity of the newspapers coverage. No more. Kurkjian and Murphy have both been covering the Gardner heist since last century.

Legacy publications, like the Boston Globe, New York Times, and even small town newspapers, have typically have an edge on crime news stories, as they navigate their way alongside numerous upstarts and aggregators in and online news jungle.

Crimes occur in a specific geographic place, and are investigated and adjudicated in a specific jurisdiction. Legacy publications typically have the staff, the long standing relationships with key sources, the courts, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys and the law enforcement personnel. Access to these sources is vital. But the sources are often shrewd enough to understand the power, the potential sway they have over journalists, and grant access, based on how willing they are to spin it their way.

"When I first sent my request for an interview to the museum’s public relations director, she emailed me back and said: 'We have to decline access.' If I needed quotes, I could get a written statement from the director of the museum or interview the head of security. But I continued to write emails and letters, and we built up trust and a shared understanding. And since then the museum has been exceptionally supportive." Ulrich Boser, author of the Gardner heist, February 20, 2009.

Twelve years later when the news that Gardner heist suspect Robert Gentile died, that shared understanding was holding firm. Boser tweeted out, If you're reporting on the Gardner theft today, please reach out to [Gardner Museum Security Director Anthonym Amore] @anthonymamore. He's the expert."

When Boston gangster Whitey Bulger was slain in 2018, Emily Rooney, on the WGBH media watch program, Beat The Press complained: "Once again the only way we are getting information about an important story is by leaks in the media," These leaks, not surprisingly, often seem to be distributed through a kind of media spoils system. Compliant spinners and fabulists, like Kurkjian, Murphy and the Boston Globe are rewarded while skeptics, and those who ask difficult follow up questions or stray from the officially sanctioned narrative are shut out.

The false Gardner Museum heist narratives, a fairy tale story of a sincere effort by the FBI to identify and apprehend the perpetrators, has been elaborated and updated over time and across multiple media platforms.

In the case of the Boston Globe that includes, a book by one of its long time reporters now a retired Boston Globe freelancer Stephen Kurkjian, a podcast partially owned by the Boston Globe, Last Seen Podcast, a documentary, in which Boston Globe CEO, Linda Pizzuti Henry was executive producer, and numerous articles written about the Gardner heist in the Globe itself, nearly all written by Kurkjian and Murphy, or both since John Henry bought the newspaper in 2013. Kurkjian also appeared and was a consultant on both Last Seen Podcast and the Netflix documentary, This Is A Robbery. Murphy too appeared in the documentary and the podcast.

In addition, there are the interviews and personal appearances in support of these projects, and the big stories, supporting the official narrative. These Boston Globe side projects, the podcast and documentary in nearly cases are judged purely on their entertainment value, even by serious minded publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times.

Last Seen Podcast and This Is A Robbery do not meet the editorial standards of the Boston Globe newspaper. Many of Kurkjian's fabulist stories from his book, the podcast, and the documentary have not appeared in the newspaper, although each format strengthens the other in a sinister synergy.

And the Boston Globe plans on doing more of this, according to an internal memo. "The Boston Globe Media Group has been expanding from a newspaper into a modern multimedia company. Many of the stories told in the journalism the Globe has produced - and those stories from STAT and, too - are well-suited to be told in other mediums - be they about a larger-than-life personality, a you-can't-believe-it's-true [I don't believe it's true] crime story, or a world-leading medical breakthrough," Dan Krockmalnic Executive Vice President, of the Boston's Globe New Media group wrote in a memo addressed to colleagues in December of 2021.

The fact a well developed source within government will be doing more than delivering a timely quote or leak about an ongoing investigation or trial, which can be spun and leveraged into multimillion dollar media projects, one where the rules of journalism do not apply, represents an additional threat to the independence of news journalism, and most certainly the Boston Globe, given their track record of deceit. on these "new media" projects. These spinoffs will likely continue to be heavy on the spin.

Part Two

by Kerry Joyce

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