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."

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.

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."

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.)

After Gladwell "wins" the contest, he says that "Billy is devastated. I am triumphant." And another sort of epiphany occurs. Gladwell says:

All those doubts about journalism melt away, and I say, "This thing called newspaper writing, I can do it."

This American Life host Ira Glass gives no indication that any part of Gladwell's performance is fictional when he breaks in to end the Gladwell segment. Instead, he encourages young listeners not to follow Gladwell's example.

"By the way, if there is any ambiguity in here at all, young journalists, please note, putting false information into the newspaper is wrong," Glass says.

Gladwell distances himself from the decision to air the story on This American Life, saying it wasn't his idea, and adds that they promised to run a disclaimer.

"This American Life told me that they would run a disclaimer at the end of my story, telling listeners not to treat what I said as gospel. I'm not sure I'm responsible for people whose literal mindedness overrides both disclaimers and fairly obvious adventures in tall-tale-telling," he e-mails.

Ira Glass of This American Life says via e-mail that the show agreed to include a comment at the end—about The Moth being a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales"—to indicate that the talk "contained elements of exaggeration or untruth."

As disclaimers go, Glass' is weak, something he acknowledges.

"It seemed best for the story if this were kept a little vague," writes Glass. "I thought it would be lousy and undermining and killjoyish if—at the end of a story—a radio host came on and said 'that wasn't true.' Seemed nicer and more artful to simply raise the possibility that it might or might not be true. I figured: the audience is smart. A little goes a long way."

Gladwell's spiel works not because the stories are particularly funny but because of his reputation as a reliable, meticulous journalist. Puncture the illusion that he's telling the truth, and the laughs leak into the ether.

A storyteller can't have it both ways, instructing listeners to "look it up" while stretching the yarn beyond the breaking point or claiming that smuggling the "baffling" phrase into Post copy became "literally" an "obsession." Gladwell's method, and his decision to let This American Life air his tale, raises … well, new and troubling questions about his attitude toward his audience.

Gladwell isn't having any of it.

"My story was true in spirit," he e-mails. "The details were happily and gleefully and deliberately exaggerated and embellished and made up by me—and I am quite sure that not a single person in the audience the night I told it thought otherwise. Anyone who would fact check a tall tale like that either has no sense of humor or is on crack."

On March 13, after I interviewed him, Gladwell had second thoughts about his Moth talk, qualifying it on his blog with these words:

There is a disclaimer at the end of the This American Life broadcast, to the effect that the Moth is a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales." As I think should be obvious if you listen to it, my story definitely belongs to the "tall tale" category. I hope you enjoy it. But please do so with a rather large grain of salt.

******

Disclosure: Chris Wilson now works at Slate, but he did not bring this story to my attention. A Slate reader did. Send comments to 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.)

Track my errors: Here's a hand-built RSS feed that will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word baffling in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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