In 2003, James Frey published his raw and shocking memoir, Million Little Pieces. His recounting of his life as a drug-addicted 23-year-old gained an Oprah Book Club endorsement in the fall of 2005, and he went on to sell millions of copies.
Three months later, everything fell apart for Frey. He was accused of literary forgery by The Smoking Gun, which conducted a six week investigation into the claims he made in his book. Was Frey’s past riddled with addiction and dangerous decisions? Yes. However, his criminal history was nowhere near as extensive as he claimed it to be. He also greatly embellished and fictionalized several aspects of his life as an addict and his recovery.
Caught in his lies, Frey publicly apologized for passing off his fictionalized book as a memoir, although he still stood by his book as a mostly true retelling of his life. His book was removed from the book club. Even though Frey did go on to write more books after Million Little Pieces, it’s safe to say his reputation will forever be defined by the controversy surrounding that book.
Frey’s story of fraud may be one of the most memorable of our time, but he certainly isn’t the only influential person who has been exposed for stretching the truth or trying to pass off made up events as reality. Check out these four huge frauds that took place over the last decade.
The News Veteran Who Lied About His War Reporting Experiences
Being exposed as a fraud may seem like the end of any career, but that isn't always the case. One example is Brian Williams, who was exposed in 2015 for having fabricated a story he had told multiple times. According to Williams’ reports, he was in a helicopter that was forced to land after being fired upon in Iraq in 2003.
It wasn’t until soldiers who were with Williams spoke out that his lies were exposed. As it turns out, Williams’ helicopter landed because of a sandstorm, not because it was under attack. After this news came to light, Williams was put on a six month suspension while his career was investigated. After multiple embellishments were discovered, he lost his job at NBC Nightly News but didn’t lose his career. Instead, he was given a job reporting breaking news for MSNBC, according to USA Today, which seems like a pretty gracious compromise in light of the extent of his deceit.
The Photographer Who Photoshopped a Surfer into War Photography
Eduardo Martins isn’t a war photographer. In fact, Martins doesn’t even exist. Even so, photographs linked to that name have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Vice, and BBC Brasil.
An investigation by BBC Brasil revealed that an unknown person was masquerading as Martins, stealing photographs from other photographers and passing them off as his own. For pictures of himself, he stole pictures of surfer Max Hepworth-Povey and photoshopped him into shots of the locations where he said he was shooting. It is also believed that Martins was engaged in six online relationships with women he had deceived. During the investigation, the person selling himself as Martins deleted his instagram and disappeared.
The CEO Whose Success Depended on a Pseudonym
Before C.B. Cebulski became the editor-in-chief at Marvel, he worked for the company and moonlighted as a comic book writer. In 2017, Cebulski was outed for using a pseudonym to write for Marvel in the early 2000s. Cebulski choose a pseudonym to get around a policy at Marvel that prohibited staff members from writing for them, according to Huff Post writer Kimberly Yam.
Using a pseudonym is fairly commonplace, but the real offense is that Cebulski, a white man, chose a Japanese name as his pseudonym. As a result, he was accused of exploiting Asian identity to get a leg up in the comic book industry. The consequences of his actions haven’t amounted to much outside of the criticism he initially faced; he remains editor-in-chief at Marvel.
The Teen Who Posed as a Sports Writer
In the world of writing, pseudonyms are used for a variety of reasons. Writers may choose a false name to protect their families or guard their reputation. In some cases, like the Bronte sisters, a pseudonym can be used to give a voice to someone who otherwise wouldn’t be taken seriously. This was the case for Becca Schultz, whose dreams of becoming a sportswriter drove her to create a completely false identity. Unlike most other writers with pseudonyms, Schultz took her false identity much too far.
Schultz created “Ryan,” a married sportswriter, knowing that she could never get published as a 13-year-old girl, according to Deadspin, the first news outlet to break the story. She carried on this ruse for eight years, until she was outed by someone with whom she had developed a relationship with online.
In addition to creating an entire persona and selling it as truth and building a career on that identity, Schultz was harassing some of the people she grew close to online, going as far as leading them to believe that “Ryan” was planning to hurt himself if they didn’t send him explicit photos over Twitter. Since being exposed as a fraud in late 2017, Schultz appears to have dropped off the grid completely.
The History of Sensationalism
We’d all love to believe we’re above being deceived by a fraudster. Unfortunately, consumers of the media are prone to believing what the see in the news or published online, even if it seems out there.
“I don’t think this is anything new, I think people have always probably bought into unusual stories,” says David Bulla, PhD, interim chair of the Department of Communication at Augusta University and an expert in media literacy. “I think that one thing that has changed, though, is the internet being a ‘printing press’ of remarkable productivity.”
Sensationalism became a part of journalism during the 19th century, according to Bulla. Two specific events come up when he begins talking of the birth of sensationalized journalism. First, in 1835, the New York Sun printed a series of six articles claiming that a telescope had found life on the moon, a hoax that would come to be known as the Great Moon Hoax. The second, which took place during the Civil War, was created by a group of journalists who intentionally shared false information, massively over exaggerating the number of troops Lincoln would be calling to serve in the summer of 1864.
“They send about ten newspapers, in the middle of the night when there was a shift change, information that said that 400,000 volunteers were to be called in the summer of 1864,” explains Bulla. “Two newspapers ... ran with it, but they couldn’t double check it.”
This story became known as the the Gold Hoax, and resulted in the newspapers who ran the story being shut down and their publishers being thrown in jail before the journalists responsible for spreading the misinformation were exposed.
Since then, sensationalism has continued to be a part of journalism; it really took off at the end of the 19th century. This is when William Hearst began employing dramatic and even misleading headlines to bolster sales. His efforts would eventually be known as “yellow journalism.”
Can You Come Back From Being Exposed as a Fake?
Despite the fact that Williams, although not free of criticism, has held onto his place in the spotlight, it is difficult to recover from being exposed as a fake. Journalists are held to a high standard and making a mistake or intentionally deceiving the American public can be a career ending mistake.
“Journalists live in this puritanical world,” says Bulla, pointing out the example of Jayson Blair, a New York Times reporter who lost his job and left journalism altogether after being exposed for false reporting and plagiarism. Journalists are much like doctors, explains Bulla, in that they’re held to a higher standard by the American public, making even the littlest trip up a big deal.
How Media Consumers Can Watch for Fake News
The first step to avoiding the spread of fake news is making media literacy an important part of general education. Bulla believes that beginning in high school, everyone needs to be required to take a course that teaches responsible consumption of media.
If you’re reading on the web, is the information on a website that is open, clear, and transparent?
Outside of that, Bulla believes that the general public can begin by understanding the requirements journalists are under. Knowing that major news organizations are required to double- and sometimes triple- check the reporting they are doing is important because it is important to feel we can trust our main sources of information.
Of course, Bulla doesn’t believe in blind trust. He suggests that consumers always start with verifying the source. Is this a reliable and legitimate news organization? This isn’t always such an easy question to answer, as there are plenty of websites masquerading as legitimate that have been exposed for publishing fake news.
“If you’re reading on the web, is the information on a website that is open, clear, and transparent? Always click on the 'About' box and see if you can find out something about it,” suggests Bulla, who further explains that legitimate news sources are transparent, sharing the names of editors, writers, and photographers on staff. Anytime a story is posted without the reporter's byline listed, it’s time to practice skepticism.
“Anonymity is not journalism's norm,” adds Bulla.
It’s also important to approach big claims or numbers with a level of suspicion. If a news source is making a huge claim, that should be a red flag. Take the time to verify the claim. Bulla suggests making sure that multiple news sources are reporting the same information.
Lastly, don’t fall into the habit of taking the headline as the best representation of the story. Many news organizations are oversimplifying or even misleading readers with the headline to get a click, according to Bulla. Scroll past the headlines and read the entire story—don’t be fooled by the clickbait that has become so common in the age of social media. Don’t ignore your gut: If something seems too bizarre to be true, it’s a good idea to do further research.