How does a disgraced journalist pay his debt to his profession and to readers?

Media criticism.
July 27 2007 6:39 PM

The Return of Michael Finkel

The work of the disgraced Times Magazine writer appears on the cover of National Geographic.

Michael Finkel.
Michael Finkel

Despite its self-image as a profession that excommunicates and banishes those who violate its ethical codes, journalism routinely grants its miscreants second chances. For example, a 1995 Columbia Journalism Review piece about plagiarism documented the low price Nina Totenberg, Michael Kramer, Edwin Chen, Fox Butterfield, and 16 other journalists paid after being accused of nicking the words of other writers.

Author Trudy Lieberman found that nearly all of them were still in the business, and some of them had even kept their original jobs. As it turns out, not many publications force journalists to pay their debts to their profession and their readers. Often, they don't even send the bill.

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Journalist Michael Finkel got his second chance in the July 2007 issue of National Geographic Magazine, where he contributes a lengthy cover story on malaria. Finkel, you may recall, was the New York Times Magazine contract writer who got busted in 2002 for committing a variety of transgressions in his feature story, "Is Youssouf Malé a Slave?" which chronicled the life and work conditions of a young laborer on an Ivory Coast cocoa plantation.

An Editor's Note appended to the magazine story (subscription required) explains that Finkel built his feature "around a composite character, with time sequences and certain other facts falsified." Although Youssouf Malé actually exists, Finkel created the Youssouf of the article by combining the stories of several boys. The real Youssouf spent less than a month at the plantation, not a year as Finkel reported. Youssouf's return to his home and his parents, of which Finkel wrote, was told to him by another boy. A scene from the article in which a psychologist interviews Youssouf never took place.

These inaccuracies were deliberate, as Finkel has acknowledged to reporters and in his 2005 book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. Finkel writes that after he finished reporting from Africa, an editor asked if he could write the story of just one boy. He said that he could.

Finkel admits in True Story that he "invented" the composite character. "I thought I'd get away with it. I was writing about impoverished, illiterate teenagers in the jungles of West Africa. Who would be able to determine that my main character didn't exist?" he writes. But Finkel was found out. He contemplated covering his tracks with a paper trail of new notes but ultimately confessed to his editors.

Finkel was no novice, so there can be no blaming his deceptions on youth or on not knowing better. He'd been freelancing at that point for 12 years, collecting bylines in Skiing, Sports Illustrated, the Atlantic, and National Geographic Adventure, as well as several in the Times Magazine for features from around the world, including a daring story in which he joined a group of Haitian refugees to sail illegally to the United States. His non-Youssouf work still commands respect from journalists I respect.

Should Finkel have been shunned forever, or did National Geographic do the right thing by giving him a second chance? Since writing True Story, for which he told the New York Observerhe earned $500,000, he's gotten a couple of other second chances. Finkel tells me via e-mail that he's written for Men's Journal, Backpacker, Runner's World, and a few other publications, but nothing with the circulation of National Geo, a publication with great prestige.

If I had the constitution of a hanging judge, which I don't, I'd have sent Finkel directly to the gallows for his Youssouf lies. He deliberately wrote things that were not true and called the work journalism. If that doesn't constitute a professional death wish, I don't know what does. He filed his lies in a fact-checked magazine that is read by knowing eyes around the world, the equivalent of robbing a camera-filled bank while wearing no mask. Finally, he violated the extreme bond of trust that readers and editors must invest in foreign correspondents. Distance, language, and culture make double-checking the truthfulness of stories reported from overseas difficult.

Comments Finkel has made to the press since the incident also indicate something less than complete remorse. (Finkel e-mailed me back once in response to a direct question about his career, but wrote that given his druthers he didn't want to appear in this column. He did not respond to a second e-mail.)

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