Friday, November 19, 2004

Media and hoaxes

If I came out with your story and found out later that there was no iota of truth to what you had told me, I am going to sue you, right?

I had said this a few times to interviewees who had told me stories that were either too good or too bad to be true and especially if it put certain persons in a bad light. Of course, this was said with a smile on my face and only after I had made the interviewees realize that I had given my time and heart and mind to hear them out. And so to remind and speak softly while carrying a big stick, so to speak.

I remember someone who broke into tears when I said this and my heart broke along with that storyteller’s but it had to be said even if there were supporters who stood by the veracity of the story and the credibility of the storyteller.

Nothing personal, I explained ever so gently. I’m just protecting my paper, I said. It helped a lot when the subject had a written account and all I had to do was for him or her to sign it. That is, if there was no sworn statement to begin with. One could always use tapes and videos. But there is nothing foolproof in this world.

Sometimes, because of security reasons the interviewee wants to hide behind an alias. But if the interviewee was the one who sought me out, I have reason to say, good for you, but what about me? Ako ang mapapatay dito. (I could get killed for this.) You have to help me prove that you’re real.

It’s bad enough to be taken for a ride, it’s worse than death for a journalist to be accused of fabricating a story and, worst of all, to be proven that one did.

I say these in the aftermath of the hoax that was spun by a mother-daughter team and who involved their pastor and church in the elaborate lie. The girl’s supposed against-all-odds triumph in an international science contest in Australia got a lot of media mileage even as it put in a bad light public officials they accused of having refused them help. Hearts bled. Doubters were harshly criticized.

Well, yesterday, the Bread of Life Ministries came out with a paid announcement apologizing to the media and parties put in a bad light and explaining how this all came about.

It was edifying to note that the media did not go all out to pillory the San Juans after their hoax was uncovered. Help should be on the way for mother and daughter.

I was curious about the legal implications of all these so I consulted a lawyer. Estafa does not apply because there did not seem to be a financial motive. Apologies have been made so libel is out. But this case could fall under the ``Special Protection of Children Against Child Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act.’’ Faye is only 12 years old and she has been dragged into this by her own mother.

A diagnosis of emotional/mental disturbance could get Mrs. San Juan off the hook. I’m not saying the case should land in court, but this should be processed from all angles by parties concerned, and with compassion, especially for Faye, uppermost. Away from the media.

As for the media, the lawyer said, it is ``Buyers, beware.’’ Take it on the chin.

Do a Google search (``media+hoax’’) on the internet and you’ll find fantastic tales that the media have fallen for.

For example, there was this ``Dole Army’’, a group of masked anarchists who supposedly dwelled in the storm-water drains under Melbourne. This ``army’’ urged citizens to defraud the government of welfare benefits. TV channels fell for the story. The ``Dole Army’’, it turned out, was just a bunch of pranksters who later owned up to the hoax.

There was the case of Norma Khuori, best-selling author of ``Forbidden Love’’ who narrated the story of her friend Dalia, supposedly a victim of honor killing in Jordan. Honor killing is the practice of murdering women who have done dishonor to their families. Dalia, a Muslim, was supposed to have fallen in love with a Christian. Honor killings are still being practiced in some Muslim societies.

The book was an instant hit. Sure, it raised the level of aware about violence against women. But Dalia was pure invention and it was proven that Khouri, a long-time US citizen of Jordanian origin, couldn’t have known someone like Dalia.

Random House later withdrew the books from the bookstores. The huge success became a huge literary scandal. I thought, why didn’t Khuori just sell her book as fiction?

Now I am becoming skeptical of these confessional autobiographies that drip blood, tears and a lot of saliva.

Some years ago, a US journalist was discovered to have fabricated the Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a drug dependent, and last year, a US reporter was severely censured for having plagiarized or passed off a major story as his own work. I don’t remember the details now, but it was a bad day for journalism.

And then there is the reverse—the ``hoax theory’’ which puts the lie on what the world has accepted as the truth. That is, the truth being peddled as a hoax.

For example, there is a group that pushes the belief that the landing on the moon was a hoax. The proponents of this theory, shown in a TV documentary, were prepared with their scientific arguments and proofs.

There are those who propagate the ``no planes theory’’ that says the video footage of the planes that crashed on the World Trade Center twin towers in New York in 2001 was a hoax perpetuated by high-tech tricksters from the TV networks.

As to Faye and her mother, may they be rehabilitated. What is in store for Faye now? What is it like inside her? Be brave, girl, all is not lost.