Fraud becoming standard practice

By Leonard Pitts Jr.

Call it the revenge of Milli Vanilli.

You remember them, right? The pop music duo that came out of nowhere to score one of 1989’s biggest hits, an album called “Girl, You Know It’s True?” But “true” is one thing Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan never were. One year, 7 million albums and a Grammy Award later, we learned they had sung not a note. Milli Vanilli was a fraud.

I was a music critic then, and I made Pilatus and Morvan (along with New Kids on the Block and a few others) poster people for my personal crusade against lip-synching, particularly in performances that purported to be “live.” In response, I often received impassioned letters from fans seeking to justify the hoax. The gist of the letters was this: We don’t care if a performance was faked, so long as it was flawless. In other words, the end justified the means.

Granted, one does not expect impartiality from a fan. “Fan” is, after all, the root word of “fanatic.” Still, that willingness to casually countenance fraud was a watershed of sorts for me. It suggested there was a sea change under way in American mores. You could no longer automatically assume that people would understand cheating to be a bad thing.

So the steroid scandal that has rocked Major League Baseball feels less like a shock than just a signpost on a road we’ve been traveling for quite a while. The story, for those who never venture to the sports page, involves outrage over the “revelation” that performance-enhancing drugs are apparently quite widely used in the national pastime.

Earlier this month, the clamor grew so loud that President Bush and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., weighed in, the president urging baseball to take strong measures to curb the practice and McCain vowing to seek a legislative remedy if it does not. The players’ union, bowing to the pressure, has agreed to support stricter drug testing.

Forgive my cynicism, but it seems to this casual observer that if steroid use was indeed widespread, then it can hardly have been a secret. Surely those who toil in and around the various clubhouses of the major league knew that many performances were artificially enhanced. In which case, what we’re seeing is not a response to cheating, but rather, to the fact that cheating has become public knowledge. Absent that development, it is likely the fraud would be continuing.
One wants to be surprised at the brazenness of it. But surprise is difficult after Milli Vanilli and Ashlee Simpson. After Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. After Enron and a Notre Dame coach with a falsified resume. And, after Piper High.

That’s the Kansas school where, in 2001, a teacher issued Fs to a group of students caught cheating on a major assignment. Indignant parents rushed to the defense of their lying offspring, some harassing the teacher with late-night phone calls. Finally, the school board ordered her to rescind the punishment. She resigned.

One student told CBS News, “It probably sounds twisted, but I would say that in this day and age, cheating is almost not wrong.”

It was a blithely abominable rationalization that captured perfectly the zeitgeist in an age of corners cut and achievements faked. It used to be a badge of honor that you were what you purported to be. These days, some people think it matters only that you look like what you purport to be. Which is why it has become increasingly difficult to be confident that what you see is, in fact, what you get.
Is that really a singer or is it just a mime? A reporter or a fiction writer? A diploma or a lie written on embossed paper? A ballplayer or a chemistry experiment?

Hard to say.

But what’s it tell you that we even need to ask the questions? It tells me we’ve entered a moral funhouse where gravity does not function.

Cheating is almost not wrong, the student said.

I guess we should be glad she said “almost.”

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com