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The Lying Game



Published May 3, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

Lately, watching the cable news, it's become increasingly clear to me that I'm a sap. Here I am working hard to earn an honest dollar, while more and more of my fellow Americans are making big bucks by lying their faces off.

It seems a day doesn't go by without news of another scam designed to pay off in fame, fortune or both. Remember that lying runaway bride, Jennifer Wilbanks? One minute she's claiming to be kidnapped, and the next she's just stressed over wedding plans. Crazy? Sure. But she wound up the subject of national media coverage for weeks, underwent a glamorous makeover, and ended up doing highly rated prime-time interviews on network television. You can't tell me she didn't cash a few juicy checks along the way.

A week or so ago, I saw a CNN report about a Massachusetts couple who'd been apprehended for filing a small fortune in fraudulent insurance claims. Did they pretend to have whiplash from a car accident? Feign a work-related injury, only to be videotaped waterskiing in the Caribbean? Nope, these two demonstrated good old American ingenuity: Again and again, they made up aliases and filed for damages claiming the food they were served at restaurants contained glass. Clever? You might think so. Until you learn they actually ingested glass shards just in case anyone checked.

We've all seen plenty of puff pieces about communities rallying around their own after disasters strike. But these are super-cynical times, and some of the more enterprising sociopaths can't resist cashing in on the kindness of strangers.

Two such cases made the 24/7 cable-news playlist recently. Heather Faria, a 27-year-old former high school teacher from Massachusetts, received more than $35,000 in donations after falsely spreading word that she'd been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Her story no doubt would have received greater play had it not been overshadowed by a far more elaborate deception: a Missouri couple who sought financial assistance from the public claiming they were the proud but penniless parents of sextuplets. They even posed for the national press brandishing six empty baby outfits. When asked where the actual tykes were, Kris and Sarah Everson lied and claimed they required special care and were still at the hospital. Apparently, local police were more thorough fact-checkers than were gullible members of the media.

Remember the family that got lost in an RV during a blizzard this winter and went missing for days, until the father walked miles back to civilization for help? Now, that had "made for TV movie" written all over it. But it turned out the heroic hiker had outstanding warrants and a criminal drug history. Shortly thereafter, the shady bunch went missing again. If they're found, I'll bet you anything we'll learn the whole lost-family drama had been staged.

Yes, the cable news is rife with stories about cagey citizens. Recently a Colorado woman named Sarah Kenney duped the community of Grand Junction into believing her husband had been killed in Iraq, and into offering her financial as well as moral support. Too bad she had no husband -- and that a local reporter uncovered her evil, made-up scheme.

There's so much public prevarication going on that someone has even published a book about the phenomenon. A couple of weeks ago, Paula Zahn had Stan Walters on her CNN show to talk about his new release, The Truth About Lying. The news anchor maintained she couldn't understand why anyone would believe they could achieve notoriety by fabricating a media case. Then she went right back to reporting the sort of time-filling non-news that inspires so much copycat behavior.

The untruthiness trend is not confined to glass-eating baby fakers. Reporters Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair disgraced prominent publications with their journalistic high jinks. Writer James Frey made millions from his fictitious "memoirs." We've learned the popular Navajo novelist Nasdijj is really Tim Barrus, a 55-year-old white man from Lansing, Michigan. Just weeks ago, celebrated author JT Leroy, a literary sensation since the publication of his first novel in 2000, was revealed to be a young woman. One whose writing is done by yet another woman, a 40-year-old rock musician. And The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is based on Leroy's work . . . he should know.

Professional sports hardly want for problems in this area, from Pete Rose's claim that he never bet on baseball, to Barry Bonds' denial that he's ever used steroids.

Hard-partying actors and rock stars routinely appear on programs such as "Entertainment Tonight" and talk about their "exhaustion." Everybody knows this is public-relations code for "too much Jagermeister and blow." These folks aren't resting -- they're in rehab.

One pharmaceutical company after another fails to be totally forthcoming about the dangerous side effects of their products. I don't remember Merck listing "deadly heart attacks" as a possible result of Vioxx use, but we now know the company was fully aware of it.

Let's face it: We've become a nation of fudgers. But is it any wonder? Isn't this just trickle-down from the White House, where a whopper isn't a sandwich but a public policy strategy? Has there ever been a less repentant Fibber-in-Chief than George W. Bush? First there was that business about Saddam Hussein playing a role in 9/11, and another about him trying to buy materials to build a nuclear bomb. Then came the lie that got Bush the war he wanted: that "liberating" U.S. troops would find stockpiles of WMD.

To this day, the lies keep coming. After Katrina, the president promised the levees would be repaired before the next hurricane season arrived. Guess what that was: a lot of hot air.

Bush can stack the judicial deck, but he can't find a way to convince his oil-biz buddies to dial down the corporate gluttony. "I'm concerned about higher gas prices," he fibs. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is making profits of $100 million a day. Administration spinners say the president can't control the price of crude, blaming tensions in the Middle East. But the fact is, he could do something about overpricing at the pump if he cared to, and half the tensions in the Middle East are his fault. As Ted Kennedy pointed out on last Sunday's "Meet the Press," if Bush really is concerned, "he should have called the heads of the oil companies into the White House and told them this is not a time for greed, that they need to return excessive profits to the public." Well, you know President Bush. He's The Decider. Guess he decided against that.

The latest in the long line of administration fibs? The "shake-up" in the White House. Give me a break. One guy resigning and another having his title changed does not exactly a shake-up make. Especially when one is the press secretary and the other is Karl Rove.

But there's got to be a way I can jump on this fabrication bandwagon. They say the truth can set you free, but these days, it seems, lying can set you up for life.