Separating bunk from fact in Malcolm Gladwell's performance at a New York storytelling forum.

Media criticism.
March 19 2008 6:06 PM

The Fibbing Point

Separating bunk from fact in Malcolm Gladwell's performance at a New York storytelling forum.

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Malcolm Gladwell. Click image to expand.
Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell doesn't explain the exact nature of his epiphany, or of his Jayson Blair moment, but it appears to be something about it being OK to play games with news stories, which he claims to have done in his next Post anecdote. He says that after being transferred to the Post health and science beat, he wrote that Sydney, Australia, was under consideration as a host for the next international AIDS convention—even though it wasn't. Remember, making up something like this is grounds for dismissal at most publications.

Why did he pick Sydney? Gladwell considered the conference assignment "a week's paid vacation," and he preferred Sydney over the genuine contending cities because he had never visited it.

So, I'm writing up the story, and I thought, would anyone mind? So I just said, "NIH officials said they were considering Rome, Vancouver, Amsterdam, and Sydney."

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Indeed, Nexis confirms that Gladwell included Sydney as a contender in his Aug. 17, 1991, Post piece about the upcoming conference. (His Post article actually names London, Madrid, and Montreal as the other contenders—which they were. The 1992 conference ultimately went to Amsterdam.)

Was Sydney a product of Gladwell's devilish imagination, as he claims, or a real contender? Gladwell wouldn't say when I asked. At least two publications mentioned Sydney as a possible AIDS conference site before Gladwell did. The June 29, 1991, edition of the Economist reported that a "convention centre has been booked inSydney as an alternative" for the 1992 AIDS conference, and a Sept. 28, 1990, Science story cited an authority who called both London and Sydney possible venues.

After the Post published his Sydney story, Gladwell says the news wires "picked up the story and called the Sydney tourist bureau" to assess the city's interest in hosting the event, and "the Miami Herald picked up the story and called the NIH." If the Herald and the wires ever reported anything about Sydney's "prospects," Nexis can't retrieve it. I asked a Herald employee to check the paper's internal database for such a story, on the chance that Nexis missed it. He came up empty-handed.

Gladwell glories in his Sydney "prank," telling the audience:

And I, kind of, I can't tell you how much, sort of, how exhilarated this makes me. And I have a sense of real power for the first time.

He flexes his newly acquired power by challenging Post colleague William Booth, also a science and health reporter, to a journalistic duel. The object is to determine who can insert the phrase "raises new and troubling questions" in his stories the most often over a month. Gladwell strikes first in the "contest," but it's then "back and forth" like "a horse race" until he leads 10-9. On the last day, Booth wins the game with a "twofer," as the phrase appears in both his piece and its headline.

"I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach; it's devastating," Gladwell says.

But no Gladwell-Booth "contest" ever took place, according to Booth.

"What I remember is that we joked in the science pod about such a contest but there was no formal contest. That is my memory. Malcolm may recall the early 1990s differently," Booth responds to a query.

This much is true: In May and June of 1989, Gladwell wrote four bylined stories in the Post containing variations on the phrase "raises troubling issues." Booth never penned any variation on the phrase in the Post until years later, and the phrase has never appeared in a Booth headline.

Gladwell's account of the "troubling questions" duel has grown in the telling. In a 1996 Slate "Diary," Gladwell claims that such a duel with an unnamed reporter ran a week. "I think I scored a four," he writes.

After his "defeat" at the hands of Booth, Gladwell says he challenged his friend to a "championship round" in which they battled to insert the phrase "perverse and often baffling" into their stories.

Chris Wilson, author of the December 2006 Washingtonian profile of Gladwell and now an editorial assistant at Slate, listened to the original Moth talk for his piece. In it, he writes that Gladwell's "friends' recollections" and the talk "paint a picture of a reporter who bent the rules and occasionally snapped them in half." Gladwell made no effort to either discourage or encourage the inclusion of the "perverse and often baffling" anecdote in the profile, Wilson says.

Back to the Moth talk:

Billy [Booth] did a piece on mollusks once, in which he wrote, he tried to claim that mollusks represented a perverse and often baffling something. And the copy desk took out "often," arguing, I think correctly, that mollusks were either baffling or they weren't.

No variation of the phrase "perverse and often baffling" can be found in any Post story by Booth, according to Nexis. In the Moth talk, Gladwell says he won this championship round on Sept. 21, 1992. "You can look it up, right on the front page," he says, where he claims to have written:

Washington D.C. has more gastroenterologists per capita than any other city in the country, but in a reflection of the perverse and often baffling economics of the health care profession, it simultaneously has the highest doctor's fees in the country.

Well, sorta. Gladwell wrote a Page One story about the District's "doctor glut," but it ran on July 8, 1989, not Sept. 21, 1992. The slightly different phrase "often perverse and baffling economics" appears in the 1989 story, but 1,200 words away from the gag line "gastroenterologist." (Gladwell tells a version of this in his Slate "Diary," too.)