Editor's Note: Was Slate Had?

The inner workings of Slate.
June 13 2001 10:30 PM

Editor's Note: Was Slate Had?

Update: Slate now concedes that key details of the article in question were fabricated. Click here for details. 

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Skeptics in "The Fray" and in other media, on- and off-line, have challenged the truth of the current "Vice" column about "monkeyfishing" in the Florida Keys. They also have expressed doubts about two earlier articles by Jay Forman in Slate. OpinionJournal.com, the Wall Street Journal editorial page's Web outlet, went beyond doubts to declare, "Slate Gets Hoaxed." In a flatteringly ad hominem attack, the anonymous writer explained that the editor of Slate is "somewhat unworldly … the sort of guy who has a lot of book learning but is short on street smarts." He or she then quoted from a "Southern glossary" that defines monkeyfishing as a bizarre way of catching fish, rather than literally fishing for monkeys as Forman describes it. That was the only evidence OpinionJournal offered.

Jay Forman stands by his account of monkeyfishing, as well as the stories in his previous two articles. Slate's deputy editor, Jack Shafer, spoke to the friend Forman says was along on this expedition, who confirms Forman's description of it in every important detail except the year (the friend says it was 1996, not 1994). The friend wishes to remain anonymous, out of embarrassment, but Shafer has confirmed that at least he is who he says he is. The friend might also be lying about the episode in question, of course, but surely at some point the burden of proof shifts to those making the accusation.

If the Journal wishes to accuse Slate of misusing the term "monkeyfishing," we can have an etymological argument about that. But what Forman actually did does not turn on the definition of a word. Forman says he fished for monkeys. Is the Journal saying he actually blew up fish with dynamite? The accusation is that Slate published a fraudulent story. Where's the evidence? (A subsequent OpinionJournal item noting a National Lampoon parody of the 1970s about "dog fishing" strikes us as neither here nor there. It certainly doesn't prove that no one went "monkeyfishing" 20 years later. For all we know, the parody inspired the practice. Who had "toga parties" before Animal House?)

In an earlier Slate article, Forman tells of using a homemade gun silencer constructed of plastic pipe, duct tape, cotton batting, and steel wool. Skeptics have suggested that this couldn't possibly work. Shafer talked with someone who saw the homemade silencer under construction and says there was no cotton batting but otherwise confirms Forman's description. Shafer described the device to the director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum, Jack Atwater, who said that such a device could work.

In a third article, about working in the pornography business, Forman claims that his colleagues put a sign on the office door reading, "Permanent Mission of Pornography to the United States" in order to annoy the Madagascar Mission next door. A reporter for Inside.com says that "a woman at the Madagascar Mission" told him this never happened. Who this woman is, how long she's been there, what she does, why she would necessarily know about a minor episode two or three years ago, what exactly she said (the words "never happened" are not in quotes) ... all missing from the Inside.com report. In fact, based on corroborating detail, there is better evidence for the existence of this sign than for the existence of this woman.

Several critics have noted Forman's admission, in the pornography piece, that his job included writing fake letters to the editor of the pornography site. Yes, this does prove that he is capable of making things up when it is part of his job. And no, we don't excuse it. (The whole idea of a column called "Vice" is to describe activities we don't condone.) But it hardly discredits everything he writes when making things up is not part of the job.

So Slate also stands by our writer and his stories. Nothing is ever the final word, but after several days of accusations, there is no evidence that he made this stuff up and lots of evidence that he didn't.

We don't say this smugly, and we don't deny moments of panic over the past few days, along with moments of relief as various items checked out. We worked these pieces over hard before they were published, but a lot harder after doubts were raised. Some of those doubts were reasonable, though thank goodness they turned out to be unjustified.

Meanwhile, what of OpinionJournal.com? Everything you publish should be as accurate as possible, of course, including wild yarns in a column called "Vice." But surely there's a special duty to have the facts nailed down when you're accusing others of perpetrating a hoax. Or maybe that's the kind of silly, street-dumb idea that some of us pick up in books.

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