Too good to be true

Blowing the whistle on a lying source

A popular teacher lies about his credentials. The story could cost him his job – maybe his life.

By Jim Morrill

Jim Morrill is a reporter for The Charlotte Observer.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 5 (August 1989), p. 3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

At 28, Chip Smith carried impressive credentials.

A star athlete in college and an honors graduate, he had just been named “Teacher of the Year” at Rock Hill High School. A year earlier he had been chosen “Beginning Teacher of the Year” for the entire district. He was an assistant baseball coach about to move into the top job. He was handsome, affable and popular.

In an interview for The Charlotte Observer about his team, he told me he had roomed with George Brett during a brief stint in the majors, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and published a book about John Kennedy’s assassination.

His story was too good to pass up. In the end, the story would cost Chip Smith a career. We had to decide whether it might also cost him his life.

Before a second interview with Smith, I made routine background checks. Kansas City had no record of his playing in the Royals’ system. McGraw Hill, his reputed publisher, had not heard of him.

I did not tell Smith of those calls, and in the second interview he repeated his claims and even elaborated on some.

Further reporting demolished other claims. Although nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, he never became a finalist as he claimed on his resume, let alone the scholar he bragged about being. He had not played varsity basketball in college, although he had added that to his impressive athletic record.

Confronted, a shaken Smith acknowledged the embellishments and said he didn’t know how the stories had started; but they had snowballed.

Please, he pleaded, don’t write an article exposing the lies.

The decision to write wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Discussions raised these questions, among others: Did the story reach the news threshold, or was it a private matter? What had Smith done? He was not a public official, he had not robbed a bank, and he hadn’t really hurt anyone.

Moreover, he didn’t live in Charlotte, but in a smaller city nearby. Wouldn’t people there consider the exposure an invasion of privacy, a personal embarrassment the paper could have avoided?

On the other hand, his tales about the Kennedy book and the Rhodes Scholarship had become public when his hometown paper ran an admiring interview. Students and teachers had heard Smith brag about being an All- American basketball star and a major league baseball player. While teachers privately questioned his accomplishments, students marveled.

By augmenting his stature, his deceits cemented his status as a role model.

Smith had a position of public trust; “Teacher of the Year” accolades further set him apart as a model. At least part of his public image was based on misrepresentations.

We thought it was important for the community, and particularly the students, to know that.

“Publication in The Observer of the facts clearly would make his life more complicated,” Editor Rich Oppel recalls, “but the story was coming out one way or the other.”

We decided to publish, and told Smith.

Then his mother came to talk to Oppel, an acquaintance. Why write the story? she asked. What’s the point, or the news? Had he hurt anyone? If we published the story, she said, Chip Smith would commit suicide.

Now, news judgment became moral judgment.

Oppel questioned Smith’s mother closely, asking why she feared for his life. It was simply a mother’s concern, he decided. “I am pretty sure that I would not have agreed not to publish because of a death threat,” Oppel says. “If you do that, doesn’t a death threat become the way to keep a story out of the paper?

“But I probably would have taken the time to consult with the story subject’s physician or clergyman, or perhaps even talked to police.”

After the story ran, community sentiment was uniformly sympathetic to Smith and negative to the newspaper. He lost his job at Rock Hill High School and went to work for his mother’s catering business in Charlotte.

Did we make the right decisions?

On news judgment, yes. On the question of moral judgment, I don’t know.

Smith didn’t commit suicide; others have. As a reporter, I don’t feel qualified to decide whether a person will do what those close to him fear he may.

Editor Oppel, who had talked to Smith’s mother, obviously had a different opinion, and, as he said, Smith, “like the rest of us, is responsible for his own actions.”