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The problems with hiring a fabulist

I was just reading an old issue of National Geographic and came across a story about the Hadza people of Tanzania, one of the last groups of true hunter-gatherers left on earth. Before I started reading the article, I noticed the byline — Michael Finkel.

Finkel is a freelance journalist who was famously busted in 2001 for fabricating large parts of a story about a young worker on a cocoa plantation in the Ivory Coast. In 2007, Slate media critic Jack Shafer wrote about Finkel’s past in the context of his having written the July, 2007 National Geographic cover story. Shafer questions the judgement of the editors:

If murderers can be rehabilitated, surely one-time fabricators like Finkel should not be irredeemable. (The Times Magazine rechecked his other features and found nothing improper.) Obviously the Times can never employ Finkel again because doing so would make the paper look cavalier about accuracy. The circumstances of his deception, his statements to the press, and the account published in his book argue strongly against allowing Finkel back into the fold. While I can forgive Finkel personally and wish him no unhappiness, I bear him a grudge for the damage he’s done to his profession and for the reader trust he’s violated. I wouldn’t give him an assignment.

I first became aware of Finkel’s work through some stories he wrote while on assignment in Afghanistan after 9/11. One that he wrote, Naji’s Taliban Phase, really struck me at the time. When I read that Finkel made up the details in the Ivory Coast story, I very much felt burned. Later, the Times went back and checked into all of his other articles, and an editor’s note now appended to the article says that the story checks out with only one minor factual error. I don’t really believe it.

Here’s what makes me sad. The Hadza are fascinating, the article is really interesting, and there’s no disputing that Finkel is a gifted writer. However, this story is about his living with a remote tribe for two weeks. The Hadza are difficult to catch up with and there are only a few people in the world who can translate from the Hadza language to English. Parts of the story take place in situations where not even his interpreter is present. It may not be fair, but I doubt pretty much everything interesting or surprising that I read in the story.

Finkel has demonstrated his willingness to spice up his stories with fiction in the past in order to make them more entertaining to read, and National Geographic put him in a situation where his account is almost impossible to confirm. Assigning such a story to someone with Finkel’s past is irresponsible, and reflects poorly on the magazine.

At least now when people search for Michael Finkel or his article on the Hadza, there will be something out there that explains why they may not want to believe everything they read.

2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure about the end result … If people searched for his name they’d already get results about the spicing up he did actually commit. Facts, if you prefer. Now because of past events and with no actual research on it, you discredit his newer work. In addition to the facts, people will get your FUD. So ironicaly you’re also being a fabulist of sorts on this one 🙂

  2. My suspicion that he would continue to make up details is purely my own opinion and I clearly state it as such. When I read an article containing unverifiable information from a guy who in the past has made up that sort of thing, it ruins the experience.

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