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.

Malcolm Gladwell. Click image to expand.
Malcolm Gladwell

The journalism of New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell has attracted millions of readers. His first book, The Tipping Point, has been on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list for 186 weeks and his second, Blink, for 49 weeks. Live audiences delight in his work, too. In late 2005, he won giggles and horselaughs from the crowd at The Moth, a New York storytellers' forum, recounting his comic adventures as a rookie newspaper reporter at the Washington Post.

Public radio's This American Life heard a recording of the Gladwell talk and approached him for permission to air it. After slight editing for broadcast, the talk ran on the show last month (podcast here; unexpurgated version streamed here). At its conclusion, This American Life host Ira Glass identifies The Moth as a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales."

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Which is Gladwell telling?

Though he plays his material for laughs, Gladwell encourages listeners to believe him by filling the talk with verisimilitude-building detail. Not once does he interrupt himself to say, You shouldn't really be taking this seriously. Instead, at one point he urges listeners to "look it up" in the Post archives if they doubt one of his newspaper exploits.

But the talk isn't verifiable. It's mostly bunk.

When I interviewed him, Gladwell protested that nobody who knows anything about The Moth would ever take literally a story told there.

"No one fact checks Moth stories, or expects them to stand up to skeptical scrutiny," he e-mails. His story, while based on real events, "is not supposed to be 'true,' in the sense that a story in the New York Times is supposed to be 'true.' " He continues, "It's a yarn. In this case, it's an elaborate joke: it's a send-up of the seriousness with which journalists take themselves."

If it's an elaborate joke, no writer appears to get it. In 2005, the New York Post's "Page Six" took his Moth presentation at face value, as did Chris Wilson, the author of a 2006 Washingtonian profile of Gladwell, who wasn't discouraged by Gladwell to think otherwise.

If the monologue had remained an insider thing, heard mostly by Moth habitués, one could sympathize with Gladwell's position. Nobody but a prig would wag his finger at Gladwell for telling stories wherever he can muster an audience. But by moving his tale from The Moth's clubby confines to the radio show's national audience of 1.7 million, the broadcast on This American Life changed the equation. The blog Jossip accepted the radio riff as nonfiction and published an item titled"Malcolm Gladwell Laughs at Journalism: The Joke Is on Us."Gawker bought the story, too, as did a dozen bloggers and commenters.

Since cock-and-bull about how he behaved at the Washington Post is being taken seriously, worming its way into the record, a detailed debunking is called for if only to explain that newspapers don't tolerate shenanigans like this. So, allow me to volunteer to be the literal-minded plodder who charts the many things in Gladwell's talk that never happened or never happened the way he describes them.

The embellishments begin at the top of his monologue when Gladwell calls his Post gig his "first real job" and confides, "I still don't know really how I got hired because I didn't have any newspaper experience. I hadn't even worked for my high-school newspaper."

This is a complete pose. The Post has long hired writers with no daily experience, including Sally Quinn, Nicholas Lemann, Sidney Blumenthal, Marjorie Williams, Steve Coll, Katherine Boo, and many others.

Upon joining the Post in the summer of 1987, Gladwell had as much experience as many daily rookies at the Post. While still an undergraduate, he completed a journalism internship in Washington, D.C. In 1984, he became an assistant managing editor at the American Spectator, where he also wrote, and after a stopover at a think tank went to Insight magazine as a reporter. While there, he covered business and also freelanced for the New Republic. The bosses at the American Spectator (Wlady Pleszczynski) and Insight (John Podhoretz) remember Gladwell as a talented writer and thinker.

That Gladwell got a Post slot comes as no surprise to me or anybody else who knew him. Then why then does he cast himself as such a greenhorn and portray his hiring as a mystery? My guess is that he knows it's much funnier for a naïf—rather than a sharpie—to run amok inside an august institution, which is what he proceeds to describe in the rest of his talk.

Gladwell claims at The Moth that publication of his first Post piece, an earnings story about a company named Maryland Biosciences, caused total mayhem at the paper.

"Unfortunately, I wrote that the firm lost $5 million in the previous quarter, and they, in fact, had made $5 million in the previous quarter," he says. This error caused the company's stock to drop 10 points, Gladwell says, and prompted the company's CEO to call Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and "chew him out." The paper placed Gladwell on probation, too, he says.

A reportorial screw-up that moved a stock 10 points surely would have made news, yet I can find no record of the incident in the Washington Post, Nexis,or elsewhere. I can't even find a trace of "Maryland Biosciences." Ben Bradlee could not recall the incident Gladwell describes when interviewed, nor could Frank Swoboda, who ran the Post business section at the time. Swoboda says he would remember if Gladwell had been put on probation, which he doesn't.

Like some of the tall tales in Gladwell's talk, this anecdote contains a sliver of truth. Gladwell mistakenly reported in an Aug. 25, 1987, Post story—not his first—that ERC International lost $3.8 million the previous year when it had actually made $337,000. A correction followed in the next day's paper. (ERCI was a Fairfax, Va., firm that did defense and energy work.)

If Gladwell's high jinks ended here, who would make a fuss? But from his apocryphal kernel, Gladwell grows an "epiphany" about journalism, one that kept him in the profession. He states:

I realized, first of all, that I had made up this story, right, but I had gotten it into the paper, and no one had stopped me. And secondly, secondly I had moved the stock 10 points. It was a kind of Jayson Blair moment. And all of a sudden there is a little glimmer, and I can begin to see that there is some hope in this profession and this thing that didn't make sense to me is now kind of making sense.

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