Lies and memories: When stories read a little too good.

Media criticism.
March 27 2007 7:02 PM

Lies and Memories

When stories read a little too good.

New York Times Magazine

If you've never embellished an anecdote to get a bigger laugh from your drinking companions, please stand up. If you've never lifted an emotional story from your kid brother's life or from a book you've read and then plugged it into your own narrative, you can stand up, too.

If you're still sitting, stand up and join the other liars. Everybody embellishes and steals a little, and some of us do it a lot.

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Why do we lie? When talking about our own histories, we lie because we fear—quite rightly—that unadorned our autobiographies are too dull to interest anybody. Plus, the true lies we tell around life's campfires are mostly harmless. So what if I sharpened a punch line or boosted the pathos a little at a dinner party? Social listeners don't demand the Associated Press' high standards of accuracy from storytellers. If anything, they expect a little fiction marbled into the facts.

But trouble starts when an enhanced story makes its way into print and collides with the value system known as journalism, as the New York Times and humorist David Sedaris learned this month.

On Sunday, the New York Times published an editors' note essentially retracting a sizable section of its March 18 Times Magazine feature, "The Women's War," because one of its subjects ginned up her military résumé.

The piece looks at the role sexual assault seems to play in the post-traumatic stress syndrome diagnosed in women who have served in combat in Iraq. Former naval construction worker Amorita Randall tells the magazine that an I.E.D. hit the Humvee in which she was riding during her 2004 tour of duty. The explosion killed the driver and left her with a brain injury, she said.

"I don't remember all of it," Randall told the Times. "I don't know if I passed out or what, but it was pretty gruesome."

The reason Randall doesn't "remember all of it" is because it never happened. She never went to Iraq.

The Times Magazine fact-checkers didn't contact the Navy to verify Randall's story until three days before deadline, according to the editors' note. Hours before press time, a Navy spokesman denied Randall's account to the Times Magazine, the note states. Randall still stood by her account, and the Times Magazine sent it off to press with a passage containing the Navy contradiction: "[N]o after-action report exists to back up Randall's claims of combat exposure or injury. A Navy spokesman reports that her commander says that his unit was never involved in combat during her tour."

Three days after the piece went to press, reports the editors' note, the Navy provided the conclusive evidence that Randall had lied. Only part of Randall's unit was sent to Iraq, leaving her behind.

I don't mean to suggest that the Times Magazine committed journalistic malpractice. In hindsight, it should have started its fact-checking earlier and surely the writer wishes today that she hadn't been so willing to believe such a convincing liar. You can hear the article's desire to believe Randall in this passage, which reads as if it was reworked in the final minutes before press time:

And yet, while we were discussing the supposed I.E.D. attack, Randall appeared to recall it in exacting detail—the smells, the sounds, the impact of the explosion. As she spoke, her body seemed to seize up; her speech became slurred as she slipped into a flashback. It was difficult to know what had traumatized Randall: whether she had in fact been in combat or whether she was reacting to some more generalized recollection of powerlessness.

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