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.)

In early 2002, right after being exposed, Finkel clawed for wiggle room. "It's an isolated incident, without question a wrong decision," he told New Yorkmagazine. "I hope readers know that this was an attempt to reach higher—to make something beautiful, frankly. In the article, there's no question of the quality of reporting, just in the journalistic techniques employed."

But you can't "reach higher" by labeling fiction as fact. Nor is constructing composite characters a "journalistic technique." It's cheating. Journalism is a hard business because you're not allowed to make stuff up. If a lawyer took the same liberties in making something up in a brief, he could be permanently disbarred. Luckily for Finkel, journalists aren't licensed.

Finkel also told New York, "Look, I wrote a 6,000-word story without a single quote, without a blink in the shift of tone and pace. It was an ambitious attempt. I slipped. It deserved a correction. But there is a great deal of accuracy. Not once has the prose been called into question."

I suppose there's a great deal of honesty in a bank heist, too, if you drive the speed limit to the scene of the crime and don't litter on the way out.

In 2005, when promoting his book, Finkel accepted full responsibility for his actions while simultaneously speculating that his transgression was not unique. "I'm not saying this to exonerate myself or anything," the New York Observerquoted him. "But it would sort of be interesting if 10 writers were picked at random, if their work was gone over with a fine-toothed comb—I wonder what the result would be."

I questioned the wisdom of sending Finkel back to the continent of his journalistic crime in an e-mail conversation with National Geographic Editor in Chief Chris Johns. Johns says that the magazine applied the same scrutiny to Finkel's piece they would to any cover story—which is to say a lot. Johns is very happy with the piece.

Johns writes that after talking to several of Finkel's previous editors, he decided the writer had learned from his mistake and could do the malaria story justice. When I offer that calling fabrications a "mistake" is generous, he replies, "I use the word 'mistake' in the generic sense, while recognizing there are degrees of mistakes and that Finkel's mistake was very serious."

"Perhaps one could say I've worked in South Africa too long, but I believe in forgiveness, especially when a person admits a mistake, asks for forgiveness and works to right a wrong," he writes.

The short biographical note about Finkel in National Geo names True Story as one of his works but does not mention his Times Magazine disgrace. The 600-word author bio on National Geo's Web site is also silent on this score. Most readers of National Geo won't get a chance to forgive Finkel because they won't know that he ever did anything wrong.

In a disconcerting passage on Page 178 of True Story, Finkel gets to the essence of what caused him to fabricate. He writes that he had budgeted only half the usual amount of time to complete his Youssouf piece because he had an upcoming, long-planned Himalayan hiking vacation (with his sister) that couldn't be rescheduled. That's an excuse for doing a rush job?

I also blanch at the passage on Page 180 where he blames the "distressed messages" his Times Magazine editor left on his voice mail for putting him in a "state of panic" that preceded his drug-fueled (Dexedrine) completion of the article. You could have canceled the vacation, dude, and gotten more time to write. Or you could have accepted a kill fee—the Times Magazine so worshipped you that more assignments had to be in the queue. It was your choice.

If murderers can be rehabilitated, surely one-time fabricators like Finkel should not be irredeemable. (The Times Magazine rechecked his other features and found nothing improper.) Obviously the Times can never employ Finkel again because doing so would make the paper look cavalier about accuracy. The circumstances of his deception, his statements to the press, and the account published in his book argue strongly against allowing Finkel back into the fold. While I can forgive Finkel personally and wish him no unhappiness, I bear him a grudge for the damage he's done to his profession and for the reader trust he's violated. I wouldn't give him an assignment.

But it's not like Finkel is begging our pardons. More than anybody, he seems to endorse the justice of the long-lasting grudge. As he writes in True Story, "I will never forgive myself."

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Disclosure: About a decade ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine. I'm also the guy who edited Slate's monkeyfishing story. Forgive, forget, or hang? What say ye's should be filed at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail 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.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.