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And when human trust is a part of the system, the potential for errors on a grand scale increases. 2003 saw one of the most respected journalistic institutions on the planet--the New York Times--confess that it had published dozens of stories by a young reporter, Jayson Blair, that were completely or partly made up. Fact checking hadn't caught his deceptions; editors who had warned about him were ignored; what seem in retrospect to be glaring inconsistencies in his stories were regarded as true and valid by some of the biggest names in the field. Other stories that seemed legit at the time--the rescue of Jessica Lynch springs to mind--became so amended, corrected, spun or rewritten that even now it's a little hard to remember what the truth of the matter finally was. We were all convinced that Captain James Yee, the Muslim military chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, had been secreting classified documents in his luggage and possibly spying for Syria. That is, until it turned out that the documents might not have been classified, and he may have been guilty of only an extramarital affair. We all believed that postmenopausal hormone-0replacement therapy was a win-win medical breakthrough, until research found it, er, wasn't.
It felt at times as if we were all on a massive reality show like Joe Millionaire in which a critical fact, like Joe's enormous fortune, was subsequently revealed as phony. Except we all are the producers and viewers of this particular reality. And like watching reality shows, we have adjusted our vision to the new twists and turns of fact and fiction. The most astonishing aspect of the Jayson Blair scandal, after all, was that many people who had appeared in Blair's fictitious accounts didn't complain about the inaccuracies because they didn't expect any better from the press. Their skepticism was so deep it saved them from disillusion. Like Frodo, they knew what they didn't know--and didn't expect others to be any less fallible. Which, after a year like this one, is the surest form of knowledge we still have.