When the story stands out, it might be a little too good


Coming of age in communist Bulgaria, my jeans were cut with scissors on the street by the police because they were deemed too tight, my dad was detained for telling a political joke, and I got expelled from high school for listening to the Beatles.

Why haven't I written a memoir or told my story yet? Because none of this actually happened to me (though different parts had happened to other people).

But as the events of this past month show, that doesn't matter one iota.

Memory is a funny thing; it creates a past that is a lot more compelling than the reality. And convincing, too.

It convinced one of the country's top newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, to go with con man James Sabatino's bombshell story linking Sean "Diddy" Combs to the 1994 assault on Tupac Shakur. It drew applause for Sen. Hillary Clinton at a rally when she recollected her dramatic 1996 landing in Bosnia under sniper fire. It also prompted publishers to print the memoirs of Misha Defonseca, a little Jewish girl who walked 1,900 miles across Europe to escape the Nazis, living with a pack of wolves, and that of Margaret B. Jones, a mixed-race girl raised among gangbangers in South Central Los Angeles.

Until someone discovered a flaw in the compelling stories: They are lies.

In probably the biggest journalistic blunder since the botched George W. Bush military service story on "60 Minutes," the Times on Wednesday apologized for using "apparently fabricated documents" in the Combs-Shakur expose after the Smoking Gun exposed them as fakes.

On Tuesday, Clinton had to apologize for depicting the harrowing scene on the tarmac in Bosnia after video footage showed a peaceful reception garnered with photo ops with local kids.

The two followed mea culpas in the past weeks by Defonseca (real name Monique De Wael) and Jones (real name Margaret Seltzer).

Why do people lie about their lives? In a society of overachievers, it's often very hard to stand out on your own merits, so to compensate for a normal middle-class upbringing or to bolster political credentials, it's tempting to spice things up. Nowhere is that more evident than in Hollywood, where perception is everything. Tinseltown is built on embellished resumes.

People have exaggerated and lied about themselves for centuries; they are just more easily exposed now with the Internet and video archives. But even with all that technology at their fingertips, why do reporters and book publishers still fall for such hoaxes? In an information glut, they too find it hard to stand out.

Not that there aren't signs. If an overweight white guy claims to be the rap world's Forrest Gump, popping up smack in the middle of every major event in the '90s hip-hop history, that should raise a flag. And if a woman looks like a white Valley girl and talks like a white Valley girl, she probably is just that, not a half-American Indian foster child who grew up on the mean streets of South Central.

No matter how incredulous those stories might be, they still will attract attention from reporters looking for Pulitzer glory by breaking decades-old cases, and from book editors searching for the next Chris Gardner with the risk of getting the next James Frey.

In entertainment journalism, we too chase even the most preposterous rumor. Because some of the biggest entertainment news stories looked pretty implausible too: an Internet upstart, AOL, buying the biggest media company, Time Warner. Or Sumner Redstone dispatching his golden Tom boys, Freston and Cruise, within two weeks. Or WB and UPN merging. Who saw those coming?

In a world dominated by reality TV, the lines between reality and fiction will continue to blur.

"There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world," De Wael wrote in her apology.

Or as we call it: typical life in Hollywood.