In the famous New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, a dog seated in front of a PC turns to his canine colleague and boasts, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
Although dogs have not logged onto the Internet in the numbers Web visionaries predicted in the early '90s, Steiner's lesson still stands: You can never be too sure that your fascinating e-mail correspondent isn't a barking imposter. Last week, Slate got taken by an Internet dog when it published the diary of "Robert Klingler," an individual who claimed in e-mails and on the telephone to be the CEO of BMW's North American operations.
Slate published two installments of Klingler's projected weeklong diary before discovering his ruse on Tuesday, March 5. When told by BMW that no Robert Klingler worked there, Slate disavowed both diary entries, and I published thismea culpa, "Slate Gets Duped." I explained that Klingler had "spoofed" his e-mail address to make it appear that it had originated from the car manufacturer. (For more on how to detect "e-mail spoofing," see this week's "Webhead" column, by Bill Barnes.)
In "Slate Gets Duped," I promised to investigate the hoax and report back. After interviews with scores of sources and vigorous surfing of the Web and other databases, I can't tell you with absolute certainty who Robert Klingler is. There's an excellent chance he doesn't even exist. It could be that one or two—or who knows how many—people might be behind the scenes, conjuring Klingler into existence, or that the people linked to Klingler in this piece are themselves the victims of a hoax. This is my account, but I will add to it if I learn more.
Slate believes that it first encountered the man doing business as Robert Klingler through "The Fray," the discussion area where Slate readers and writers mix it up. On Oct. 31, 2001, Slate "Fray" editor Moira Redmond received an e-mail signed by "Rob Klingler" in which he responded to the Slate "Diary" Redmond was writing that week. Redmond had made a joke about hoping that Mercedes-Benz might make the gift of a new car to her. Klingler wrote:
Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2001 5:54 AM
Subject: would a BMW do?
Just kidding. Thanks for an enjoyable diary—and yes, I am the North American head of BMW. The next time I run into Jurgen Schrempp (the actual head of Daimler Chrysler), I'll pass along your request for a Mercedes freebie, although why you would want one is beyond me.
Although the letter was signed "Rob Klingler," the return e-mail address was email@example.com. The "Internet header" info accompanying the e-mail, which tracks the hops that an e-mail makes from sender to recipient, seems consistent with a mail originating from firstname.lastname@example.org. In other words, the address was not spoofed.
Without mentioning Klingler by name, Redmond mentioned his e-mail in her Nov. 1, 2001, Diary entry, remarking that the head of BMW North America had written her about her Mercedes wish. In a message e-mailed from Klingler's Robertgklingler@aol.com address to Redmond, dated Nov. 7, 2001, Klingler said it was OK for Redmond to give Slate Associate Publisher Cyrus Krohn his e-mail address—Krohn wanted BMW to buy ads on Slate—"But I hope you gave him this one and not the Rdesai3109 one—else his messages will mystify my brother-in-law." Krohn played a weekslong, fruitless game of e-mail tag trying to get Klingler to place BMW ads in Slate. Redmond also forwarded the e-mail to the editor of the Diary feature, Jodi Kantor, who in December sounded Klingler out about writing a Slate Diary. From the e-mail address of Robertgklingler@aol.com, he wrote to Kantor:
Sent: Tuesday, December 04, 2001 8:08 PM
To: Jodi Kantor
Subject: Re: Slate Diary etc
Good lord, yes. I'd be flattered. Let's talk about weeks that might make sense, both for Slate (controversy and eventfulness and all of that), and for me (finding time to write something coherent every day).
Rob Klingler-Desai? In January, Slate's Eliza Truitt assumed editorship of the Diary feature and commenced a lengthy correspondence with Klingler. His every e-mail came from Robertgklingler@aol.com, with the exception of one, which came from his "corporate address" at BMW, email@example.com.