The Top 12 Journalism Scandals Since 2000

They range from allegations of bias to stories that were just made up

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Everyone's accustomed to hearing about petty politicians and crooked captains of industry, but there's something especially jarring when journalists are accused of behaving badly. Journalists, after all, are supposed to be the ones keeping a critical eye on the people in power (think Watergate's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein). So when the Fourth Estate goes bad, where does that leave the profession—and the country? The first decades of the 21st century had no shortage of journalism-related scandals. Here are the 10 biggest.

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Jayson Blair and The New York Times, 2003

Jayson Blair was a young rising star at The New York Times until, in 2003, the paper discovered he had systematically plagiarized or fabricated information for dozens of articles. In an article detailing Blair's misdeeds, the Times called the scandal "a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper." Blair got the boot, but he didn't go alone: Executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald M. Boyd, who had promoted Blair within the paper's ranks despite warnings from other editors, were forced out as well. 

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Dan Rather and George W. Bush's Service Record, 2004

Just weeks before the 2004 presidential election, "CBS News" aired a report alleging that President George W. Bush had gotten into the Texas Air National Guard—thus avoiding the Vietnam War draft—as a result of preferential treatment by the military. The report was based on memos said to be from that era. But bloggers pointed out that the memos appeared to have been typed on a computer, not a typewriter, and CBS eventually acknowledged that it couldn't prove the memos were real. An internal investigation led to the firing of three CBS execs and the report's producer, Mary Mapes. "CBS News" anchor Dan Rather, who had defended the memos, stepped down early in 2005, apparently as a result of the scandal. Rather sued CBS, saying the network had scapegoated him over the story.

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CNN and Sugarcoated Coverage of Saddam Hussein, 2003

CNN news chief Eason Jordan acknowledged in 2003 that for years the network had sugarcoated coverage of Saddam Hussein's human rights atrocities to maintain access to the Iraqi dictator. Jordan said reporting Saddam's crimes would have endangered CNN reporters in Iraq and meant the closing of the network's Baghdad bureau. But critics said CNN's glossing over of Saddam's misdeeds was happening at a time when the United States was debating whether to go to war to remove him from power. As Franklin Foer wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "CNN could have abandoned Baghdad. Not only would they have stopped recycling lies, they could have focused more intently on obtaining the truth about Saddam."

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Jack Kelley and USA Today, 2004

In 2004, star USA Today reporter Jack Kelley quit after editors discovered he had been fabricating information in stories for more than a decade. Acting on an anonymous tip, the paper had launched an investigation that uncovered Kelley's actions. The investigation found that USA Today had received many warnings about Kelley's reporting but that his star status in the newsroom had discouraged hard questions from being asked. Even after he was confronted with the evidence against him, Kelley denied any wrongdoing. And just as with Blair and The New York Times, the Kelley scandal claimed the jobs of USA Today's top two editors.

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Military Analysts Who Weren't as Impartial as They Appeared, 2008

A 2008 New York Times investigation found that retired military officers who were routinely used as analysts on broadcast news shows were part of a Pentagon effort to generate favorable coverage of the Bush administration's performance during the Iraq War. The Times also found that most of the analysts had ties to military contractors who had financial interests "in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air," Times reporter David Barstow wrote. In the wake of Barstow's stories, the Society of Professional Journalists called on NBC News to cut its ties with one particular officer—retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey—to "re-establish the integrity of its reporting on military-related issues, including the war in Iraq."

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The Bush Administration and the Columnists on Its Payroll, 2005

A 2005 report by USA Today revealed that the Bush White House had paid conservative columnists to promote the administration's policies. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid to columnists Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, and Michael McManus. Williams, who received the most loot, acknowledged he had received $241,000 to write favorably about Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative, and he apologized. His column was canceled by the Tribune Co., his syndicator.

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The New York Times, John McCain, and the Lobbyist, 2008

In 2008 The New York Times published a story implying that GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona had had an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist. Critics complained that the story was fuzzy about the exact nature of the alleged relationship and relied on quotes from anonymous McCain aides. Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt criticized the story for being short on facts, writing, "If you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed." The lobbyist named in the story, Vicki Iseman, sued the Times, charging that the paper had created the false impression that she and McCain had had an affair.

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Rick Bragg and a Controversy Over Bylines, 2003

Hot on the heels of the Jayson Blair scandal, acclaimed New York Times writer Rick Bragg resigned in 2003 after it was discovered that a story carrying only his byline had been largely reported by a stringer (a local correspondent). Bragg wrote the story—about Florida oystermen—but acknowledged that most of the interviewing had been done by a freelancer. Bragg defended the use of stringers to report stories, a practice he said was common at the Times. But many reporters were outraged by Bragg's remarks and said they wouldn't dream of putting their byline on a story they hadn't reported themselves.

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The Los Angeles Times, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and 'Gropegate,' 2003

Just before the 2003 California recall election, the Los Angeles Times reported allegations that gubernatorial candidate and "Terminator" star Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped six women between 1975 and 2000. But the Times drew fire for the timing of the story, which had apparently been ready to go for weeks. While four of the six alleged victims were not named, it turned out the Times had nixed a story alleging that then-Gov. Gray Davis had verbally and physically abused women because it relied too heavily on anonymous sources. Schwarzenegger denied some of the allegations but acknowledged he had "behaved badly" at times during his acting career.

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Carl Cameron, Fox News and John Kerry, 2004

Weeks before the 2004 election, Fox News political reporter Carl Cameron wrote a story on the network's website claiming that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had manicures. In an on-air report, Cameron claimed that Kerry had received a "pre-debate manicure." Fox News reprimanded Cameron and retracted the story, claiming it had been a lame attempt at humor. Liberal critics charged that the gaffes were evidence of the network's conservative bias.

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Brian Williams Embellishment Scandal, 2013, 2015

Popular NBC "Nightly News" journalist Brian Williams became embroiled in a scandal when he claimed to have been in a helicopter hit by a missile in 2003 when reporting on the invasion of Iraq. Actually, the helicopter hit was in front of his. He first recounted the story on David Letterman in 2013 and elsewhere.

In 2015 a soldier in the helicopter that was actually hit heard the story and didn't recall Williams being on his particular transport. Williams wouldn't say that he lied but rather explained that his order of events was a result of his faulty memory. “I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago.”

He was put on leave for six months without pay and then replaced on the "Nightly News." Williams moved on to MSNBC.

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Rolling Stone Assault Fabrications, 2014

Rolling Stone ran a huge story about several University of Virginia men who reportedly raped a woman as part of a fraternity initiation ("A Rape on Campus"). The source fabricated her story. It was only after the story was published that the source's story started to unravel, when the writer was following up on a detail that the source refused to divulge during the interview portion of the reporting.

The magazine settled a lawsuit with the fraternity, agreeing to pay $1.65 million in defamation damages, some of which was to be donated to charities dealing with sexual assault victims.

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Rogers, Tony. "The Top 12 Journalism Scandals Since 2000." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rogers, Tony. (2023, April 5). The Top 12 Journalism Scandals Since 2000. Retrieved from Rogers, Tony. "The Top 12 Journalism Scandals Since 2000." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).