Lies are quick way to fame in 1998 -- From Jesse Camp to ''The Boston Globe'' journalists, telling the truth was difficult

By Jeff Jensen
December 25, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Oh, the tangled webs we weave when it becomes hip to deceive. The Chinese calendar may call 1998 the Year of the Tiger, but it was more like the Year of the Poseur. Besides Linda Tripp and our Commander-in-Chief, we saw a whole parade of people who fudged facts or weren’t forthcoming about their pasts. Even morals maven Dr. Laura Schlessinger apparently wasn’t following her own advice about sex outside marriage when she was in her 20s.

Among those telling lies in America:
Jesse Camp
Soon after winning MTV’s Wannabe a VJ contest, the scrungy Camp, then 18, who’d hinted that he was a runaway, began telling reporters he was indeed a street kid alienated from his parents. Lo and behold, Spin magazine revealed Jesse was actually a preppy from Granby, Conn., with a zest for drama and parents who clearly weren’t mommy and daddy dearests. But that hasn’t stopped MTV from hyping its dazed and dubious populist personality. A recent Waldoesque programming stunt called ”Where’s Jesse?” had Camp lost in America, searching for his musical roots. Soon he’ll record an album with ’80s hair-metal acts.

”He didn’t make up anything until after he got the job, so he didn’t do it in any calculated way to get ahead,” says Brian Graden, programming chief of MTV, which is planning another Wannabe a VJ contest for ’99. ”We didn’t experience any backlash. Our viewers just really didn’t care.”

Riley Weston
Meet the World’s Second-Oldest Teenager…Not! Weston was so convincing as a 19-year-old wundergirl/actress/writer, she even fooled EW. In truth, she was a 32-year-old who marketed herself as a demographically desirable teen talent to get work from Disney’s Felicity producers. Although being outed reportedly has put her two-year, six-figure production deal with Disney in limbo, her act landed her a profile in Vanity Fair and an upcoming segment on 60 Minutes.

The Muckraked Journalists
As if the public needed more reasons to mistrust the media, an itchy rash of high-profile reporters were ousted in 1998 for playing fast and loose with the truth. Much-admired chronicler Stephen Glass forced The New Republic and Rolling Stone to print apologies for the faked facts in his stories. Patricia Smith, pegged by her peers as a future Pulitzer Prize winner, was booted by The Boston Globe for inventing sources in four of her columns. Mike Barnicle, another Globe columnist, was tossed for a tear-jerking tall tale about two cancer-ridden kids. ”It was simply a true story,” he later wrote, ”flawed in the retelling.” Barnicle has since picked up freelance work with ESPN magazine.

”It’s a [by-product] of our pro-wrestling culture, where everything is entertainment, nothing is really that important,” says Michael Josephson, president of Character Counts!, a grassroots organization trying to inject ethics into popular culture. ”The real question, though, is what’s going to happen when all of these people want to take their celebrity to another level. It’s the Geraldo predicament: When you want to be somebody else, especially somebody more respectable, will the audience accept you?”

Camp, for one, thinks he’s figured out how to get an audience to accept anyone on any terms. ”You gotta know not how to play people, but where people are comfortable,” he told Spin. ”My whole thing is just, like, don’t own up to everything you know.” Today, those truly are words to live by.

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