Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Writer Undone by a Lie Tells the Story of a Murderer

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Writer Undone by a Lie Tells the Story of a Murderer

Article excerpt

In 2001, Michael Finkel was at the top of his game. He had built a reputation for himself as an ultra- ambitious contract writer for The New York Times Magazine, a journalist with a gift for handling heavy stories with literary finesse.

But by early 2002, Mr. Finkel's career was in tatters. He was discovered to have invented a source in a piece written for the Times.

Why did he do it?

"It was all about self-aggrandizement," he says in a recent interview in his cramped office in Bozeman, Mont. "At least five times a day I metaphysically slap myself for it."

How did it all happen? Rewind to 2001.

That year Finkel received a particularly choice assignment: His editors at the Times sent him to investigate allegations of child slavery in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast. It was, Finkel writes in his new memoir, "True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa," the journalistic equivalent of winning the lottery.

But when he returned from his trip with stories of bruising poverty but no evidence of slavery, his editors proposed a switch. Could Finkel sketch that poverty through the eyes of one boy? He said yes.

On Sunday, Nov. 8, 2001, the magazine published a profile of an illiterate 15-year-old African boy named Youssouf Male who sold himself to owners of a cocoa plantation.

The story ran under the headline, "Is Youssouf Male a Slave?" But when a humanitarian-aid agency raised doubts about the story, Finkel at first tried to cover his tracks, then ultimately admitted that Youssouf wasn't a real boy but a "deceptive blend of fact and fiction," a composite character created from the stories of several real boys. Finkel was fired on the spot, and the Times assigned a reporter to write about the deception.

In the days following, he retreated from friends and relatives, waiting for the six-paragraph Times story to run on Feb. 21, 2002. "More than once," he writes, "I crawled into the cramped, dusty space underneath my writing desk and tore at the carpet, rubbing my fingers raw."

But hours before the Times story appeared, in a twist not even befitting bad cinema, Finkel learned from an Oregon newspaper reporter that Christian Longo, a mass murderer accused of killing his wife and three children, had been arrested in Mexico where he was living under a fake identity: Michael Finkel, a writer for The New York Times. …

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