It's easy to portray Vargas—a self-described hard worker and American dreamer—as a victim of the system. As my colleague Alex Massie put it on Twitter this afternoon in response to my critical tweets, "But what was Vargas supposed to do? Pick fruit for the rest of his life?" No, I wouldn't sentence anybody to a life of fruit-picking, and yes, he and other illegal aliens are sympathetic characters. But Vargas' truth-telling about his lies, which included an extensive sit-down with ABC News, deserves additional scrutiny before any of the former bosses and employers he has "reached out to" with apologies "for misleading them" accept them.
Like Janet Cooke, Vargas lied about who he was. Cooke would never have gotten her job at the Washington Post, would never have written "Jimmy's World," would never have won a Pulitzer Prize if she hadn't misrepresented herself on her résumé as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar. * It may be unjust that Cooke, a black woman and a good writer, couldn't have made the jump to the then-Ivy-centric Post at the age of 25 if she had been honest about her humble University of Toledo undergraduate degree. But the unjustness of the world didn't give her a license to lie to the Post, where she eventually told many more. Likewise, Vargas would never have been hired by the Post had he told the paper the truth about his immigration status. I know the two lies aren't exactly analogous. Cooke told her lies to inflate her status, Vargas to normalize his. But the fact that Vargas lied about his noncompliance with what I (and others) consider to be an unjust law cannot be waved off. The trouble with habitual liars, and Vargas confesses to having told lie after lie to protect himself from deportation, is that they tend to get too good at it. Lying becomes reflex. And a confessed liar is not somebody you want working on your newspaper.
Oh, I expect to be denounced as a prig for that last paragraph. Like you've never told a lie? Never fudged your taxes? Never constructed a drunken alibi? Told a whopper? Stolen a candy bar? Of course I have. But have I lied systemically to my journalistic bosses? Nope. I don't come by my honesty policy because I'm virtuous by nature. I'm not. I'm honest because I know that if you violate your editor's trust, you're a goner for good reason. (Also, I'm a terrible liar who can't keep his lies straight.)
Vargas tells ABC News that he's chosen to come out as an illegal immigrant to help fight for passage of the DREAM Act, which would extend legal residency to deportable immigrants who came to the United States as minors, as he did. I wish Vargas and his campaign good luck. But to uncloud the issue one last time, we need to uncouple Vargas' cause from what he has done. He writes in his Times piece of being weary of "running away from who I am," but after reading his feature and the various news treatments of his story, I have no confidence of who that really is.
Lies and journalism don't mix. Send your clashing word cocktails to firstname.lastname@example.org and drink deep and taste not from my Twitter stream. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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Correction, June 23, 2011: This article originally misspelled Jimmy in the name of Janet Cooke's infamous article. (Return to the corrected sentence.)