< Redemption Song


Friday, June 24, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2002, Michael Finkel was fired from the New York Times magazine for creating a composite central character for a piece about child slavery in West Africa. Having been caught committing that journalistic capital offense, Finkel retreated to await the Times' announcement of his dismissal. But the day before he was publicly shamed in the Gray Lady's pages, another reporter called Finkel asking him about an Oregon man named Christian Longo, wanted for the murder of his family, who had been arrested in Mexico, pretending to be New York Times writer Michael Finkel. Finkel, both stunned and intrigued by the potential for a story that might salvage his career, formed an odd relationship with Longo that endured through his murder conviction. Finkel's new book, called True Story, tells Longo's story, muses on the slipperiness of lies and liars from the inside out, and takes a shot, perhaps the author's last, at a kind of reportorial redemption. Michael Finkel joins me now. Michael, welcome to the show.

MICHAEL FINKEL: Thank you, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were pretty much a boy wonder, bound for glory. How did you get derailed?

MICHAEL FINKEL: Well, I liked to write in the evening, and it was literally 36 hours without sleep. I was struggling with how to construct this story, and so - no excuses, but I was exhausted and under a deadline pressure, and I convinced myself or I deluded myself that serving a higher truth, you know, proving or showing that there's no slavery, was more important than paying attention to the lower truths. It was an evening of weakness, and after I handed it in, I almost was hoping that my editor would say this is terrible, but she didn't, and I didn't tell her that it was falsely constructed.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you were blown up in one ethical mine field, and then immediately entered another. What went through your mind when you got that call from a reporter about Christian Longo assuming your identity?

MICHAEL FINKEL: That moment is indelibly etched in my mind. It's the most confounding moment. You find out that a murderer has taken on your identity. There's this natural sense of repulsion, but if you're a journalist, there's also this weird itch that I guess could best be described as curiosity or wanting to know more. I wrote a letter to Christian Longo. It was one of the oddest letters I've had to write in my life, and mailed it off to the Lincoln County Jail.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you read a, a little bit of that letter that you sent to Longo?

MICHAEL FINKEL: Here's the way the letter begins: Dear Mr. Longo. Yes, it is actually me, Michael Finkel, of the New York Times, or, rather, formerly of the New York Times. To tell you the truth, I was just recently fired. I invented a character in one of my recent stories, and I was caught and was very publicly fired. So now I am out of a job. I understand that while you were in Mexico, you used my name. I understand that you're facing an upcoming trial, and that there is probably much that you are unable to talk about, but I was hoping you would agree to meet with me. I'd like to do this, because at the same time that you were using my name I lost my own.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What could Longo do for you?

MICHAEL FINKEL: It seemed like a cosmic coincidence, and something you know frankly at the time to divert my mind from what, what I was going through. It was like a welcome distraction, perversely.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Longo, you wrote, was charming. He was prone to lying. And your book is very up front about your feelings for him as he both befriended you and lied to you. What responsibilities did you decide you had in your dealings with Longo?

MICHAEL FINKEL: My relationship with Christian Longo was a constant ethical battle. I was never sure what the right thing to do was. You know, how many friendly overtures can you make to a person who seemed very likely to have killed four people - his wife and his three children? At the outset of our relationship, Longo said to me that he'd read many of my articles, and he knew that I was a thorough journalist, and he said I'm going to prove to you my innocence, and I just ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt. And I felt very comfortable maintaining, you know, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. I never really thought that he was innocent, but I was willing to listen with as open a mind as possible, and so that's sort of the way I allowed myself to listen to Longo's entire saga.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in your book you find yourself identifying with Longo, a repellant homicidal liar. In what way did he resonate with you?

MICHAEL FINKEL: You know, I obviously you know, made a mistake with the New York Times and had some vein of deception that ran through me, and when I looked at Longo at times I imagined my flaws projected on a screen the size of a Imax movie theater - it was like - I don't mean to make any comparisons between what Longo did and my deceptions, but in a way it was my worst attributes writ enormous, and it was a very frightening experience.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you learn anything, though, Michael, from studying him, from trying to puzzle him out, about the nature of liars?

MICHAEL FINKEL: How can you tell when someone's lying to you? I attempted, of course, the standard ways - doubled checked every single fact that Longo mentioned in his letters, and they all checked out, but there was so much that you couldn't check. What kind of a father he was. What kind of relationship he really had with his children. All those people were, were dead. I at least thought as a journalist I had a very good sense of whom to trust, and I have to say that my long encounters with Chris Longo completely pulled the rug out from under me. I could never catch him in a lie. It was so impossible to detect. It rattled me, and I still actually haven't recovered from the whole experience. It made me question my own abilities as a reader of, of other humans. I really hope that listeners don't encounter - ever encounter anyone like Christian Longo.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Journalistic redemption has no prescribed path. Now before you learned of the Longo coincidence, did you think about how you might salvage your career?

MICHAEL FINKEL: Well, I knew that what I had done with the New York Times story was an isolated incident. I was thankful that the New York Times was investigating all my other articles, and they actually did run a second editor's note saying that they found no other significant errors. And after that second note rate, a few other magazine editors, some very good magazines, said that they were willing to give me a second chance - not the New York Times, but other publications. And so, I was going to slowly rebuild my journalistic career as best I could. Obviously you know, number one would be to ensure that any article I wrote would be beyond any category clean - it would be like the Kobe Beef of, of articles. [LAUGHTER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in the future you may write for, say, National Geographic Explorer or some ski magazines, and the other magazines that say you'll still be welcome there. But you're no longer considered a reporter qualified to write for the Times. How much does that bother you?

MICHAEL FINKEL: Oh, even just hearing you say it, it hurts. I understand. I don't blame the New York Times for doing what they did. I would have done it to myself if I was the editor. There's not much I can do about it, except, except move on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Finkel, thank you very much.

MICHAEL FINKEL: Brooke, it's been a pleasure to talk with you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Finkel is the author of True Story. He's just embarked on a long and uncertain road to journalistic redemption. David Brock, on the other hand, may well be in the final stretch. Now, he runs an avowedly liberal media watchdog group, mediamatters.org, that specializes in fact-checking. But once, Brock was a staunchly conservative journalist, one who led the charge to smear attorney Anita Hill when she testified against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In 2002, Brock published a book-length mea culpa called Blinded by the Right, in which he confessed to have been essentially a hack, and sometimes worse than a hack, a hatchet man.

DAVID BROCK: There were activities that I was engaged in when I was in the conservative movement that were wrong, even if some of what was being written might have been factually true. In other words, a strange mix of a political agenda under sort of the guise of journalism, and ultimately there would be situations where you had to make a decision whether the politics trumped the journalism or the other way around, and in some cases, I made the wrong decision and went with the politics rather than with the journalism.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you were preparing your own mea culpa, did you look around for models of other people who had publicly apologized?

DAVID BROCK: Not public apologies, but I did read some books that told stories of people's ideological transitions. I've read probably all of Norman Podhoretz's books, who is a well-known neo-conservative who has, you know, moved from a more liberal position in the 1950s and 1960s to a more conservative position in the 1970s and '80s. David Horowitz is another neo-conservative. I don't agree with him, but wrote what I thought was quite a good book about his change of ideology and experience.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Interestingly, most of the well-known political conversions are from liberal to conservative ideology, because of the famous expression - anybody - you, you'll probably be able to do this better than I can.

DAVID BROCK: I think it's the, that a neo-conservative is a liberal mugged by reality? [LAUGHTER] I did go in the opposite direction, and you're right that there's a whole volume of, of books written by former liberals and, and not that many who've moved the other way, although there are a few.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that morality is really in the eye of the beholder? I'm sure that some of your former colleagues on the political right see what you've done, in exposing the environment you used to work in, as a kind of betrayal that makes you in fact less trustworthy.

DAVID BROCK: Right. I'm sure they do, and the decision that I made was that when the political story moved to impeachment, and I knew a fair amount of information about what had gone on in the anti-Clinton movement well before anybody knew the name Monica Lewinsky, that I really owed it to the public to tell what I knew. So that was my impulse. I'm sure that conservatives felt that that was a betrayal and was traitorous. I mean obviously in some cases it, it was a betrayal of some of the personal relationships, but I felt that the story was big enough that it needed to be told and needed to be written down for the sake of history.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has your time dwelling on journalistic truth given you any insights into how slippery truth can be?

DAVID BROCK: Sure. Yeah. I mean I think that even though I'm self-identified as a progressive, and we make no bones about the point of view of our organization being a progressive organization, I don't have the zeal that I had as a conservative, in the sense that I think that I often looked at things in a very black and white way, back 10, 12 years. That was sort of the formative way of thinking about things, and I think I see a lot more grays now than I used to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is so liberal of you.

DAVID BROCK: Right. Yes. [LAUGHS] It's horrible, isn't it? [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anyway, the big question here is, have you been redeemed, David?

DAVID BROCK: Well, I feel as if I have, yeah. And I think that I'm, you know, attempting to take some of the experience that I have, that I think was put to bad purposes and to turn it around and use it for good purposes. I think there are some things that I did, particularly involving Anita Hill, that you know, you maybe can't ever be redeemed for. You can't - it never goes away - a certain kind of damage can't be undone, and I'm aware of that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: David thank you very much.

DAVID BROCK: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Brock is founder of mediamatters.org, and author of Blinded by the Right. [MUSIC]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, government lawyers use newspapers to deport people, and cable launches yet another new network. Well, not really. This is On the Media, from NPR. [FUNDING CREDITS]