Michael Finkel and the New York Times Magazine

As any regular Romenesko

reader knows, the New York Times Magazine has fired a contributing

editor, Michael Finkel, for using "improper

narrative techniques" in his profile

of a Malian teenager who worked on a cocoa plantation. The basic facts

of the case are simple: Finkel conflated the stories of many different

boys to tell a story which wasn’t true. Furthermore, parts of his

story weren’t even true of any boy at all, let alone the subject of

the piece. That’s the sort of thing which you might get away with

at Seventeen,

but it’s just not done at the New York Times.

Finkel understands that, and doesn’t

blame the Times for firing him. Neither do I. But after reading

an old profile

of Finkel, and a new story

in the New York Observer today about the whole affair, a slightly

more well-rounded picture emerges.

Finkel’s prose is spare and clean, and a huge amount of work goes

into it: "the dirty dark secret is that it takes me forever to

make it sound like I just wrote it in a minute," he says. Since

the New York Times gig was by far his most high-profile job, it stands

to reason that Finkel would have put even more effort than usual into

the story he submitted to them after travelling to Mali. The problem

was that he hadn’t found what he was looking for: he’d pitched a child-slavery

story, and found only boys working for very low pay and in great hardship.

If anything, the story was that aid agencies were playing rather fast

and loose with the slavery label, because it suited their own ends.

The Observer talked to the photographer who travelled with Finkel

to Mali, Chris Anderson.

After a couple of weeks of reporting in June and

July of last year, Mr. Anderson said, Mr. Finkel had a lot of trouble

writing. Mr. Anderson said Mr. Finkel went through a lot of drafts.

To compensate for the lack of a hard child-slavery angle, Mr. Anderson

said, The Times editors wanted Mr. Finkel to "try to make it

more personal, more human, so Mike tried to do that and wrote a couple

more drafts, and they were all rejected for one reason or another."

These drafts, it would seem, involved much more than tweaks: they

were full-scale rewritings and restructurings. A huge amount of time,

work and frustrated effort was going into this story, and Finkel was

very keen to get it out of the way so that he could move on to other

projects: specifically, a mountain-climbing expedition in Nepal.

Only the New York Times editors ever saw the original drafts, so

only they know for sure, but I would be very surprised if the first

couple of drafts had anything ethically wrong with them. The problem

was that Finkel had travelled to Mali to report one story, and was

now being pressured to write another: one which his reporting really

couldn’t sustain. According to Adam Moss, the editor of the New York

Times magazine, Finkel wrote the story which ended up being published

"as an exercise, to put down on paper what he wanted to write,"

although that hardly explains how it got into the hands of the magazine

without any indication that it wasn’t true.

Freelance journalism is a risky gig, for reporters and editors both.

Stories get pitched and commissioned before they’re fully reported,

and most of the time the story which emerges at the end is different

from that envisaged at the beginning. Problems arise when, after the

reporting has been done, the resulting story turns out to be very

different indeed from the one which was commissioned.Reporters are

generally happy to go back to a magazine with a tale along the lines

of "as I was reporting on X, I stumbled across a much bigger

story: Y". What they’re less keen on doing is saying "the

more I looked into X, the more I realised there really wasn’t a story

there at all."

It’s the job of editors to help journalists find the angle and write

a good story, even when the reporting doesn’t necessarily back up

the original commission. A lot of the time, the editor will propose

that the reporter phone a few more people and get the extra material

needed for the new story, as it’s now envisaged. The problem in this

case was that no one was proposing that Finkel return to Mali, and

there was no way that the extra material could be obtained over the


Eventually, Finkel gave the New York Times what it wanted: a compelling

third-person account of a typical "child slave". I’ve written

a similar kind of account myself,

although in a very different context. My story was written directly

from my notes, a couple of hours after I talked to the subject of

the piece. Even though the conversation was still fresh in my mind,

I relied heavily on what I wrote down as he was talking.

Finkel, by contrast, doesn’t take any notes at all when he’s talking

to his subjects, only writing down his "impressions" later

in the day. Furthermore, he wrote the whole New York Times story without

referring to his notes once. With all the good will in the world,

I have great difficulty imagining how such a story could ever be wholly

accurate. To that we must add the facts that the story was being written

in order to pacify an editor who had already rejected several drafts.

In such a context, it becomes clearer how the noteless writer ended

up producing something better than the story which he was actually

able to write, given the reporting.

While Michael Finkel is certainly to blame for this affair, I think

there is a lesson here for all features editors: Beware stories which

change significantly after the reporting has been finished. All editors

should go back to their writers and ask for more material when more

material is needed. But if what they got originally was short on crucial

elements, then they should bear in mind the fact that there’s a good

chance the journalist hasn’t had any access to those elements. If

you’re an editor and you get back a revised draft which adds in stuff

which wasn’t in the original and which couldn’t have been obtained

in the mean time, proceed only with extreme caution.

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3 Responses to Michael Finkel and the New York Times Magazine

  1. Phil Monk says:

    As the waterline rises here in the little hole in the wilderness, curiosity runs rampant and

    Christian Longo grows moldy in isolation on the

    Oregon Coast under guard. Michael Finkel is one

    of his aliases and mentors…will book ensue or

    are these ramblings of madness!?!

    -Phil Monk


  2. Saw “Journalist fights order to turn over Longo tapes,” in Oregonian.

    I am a senior journalist living in Oregon and writing in Boulder. To obtain my files, 30 years worth on organized crime, the chief judge threw all my possessions and work on the streets of Boulder. Free speech is not challenged, free speech in America is gone.

  3. It goes to show what an ass Adam Moss is. How many stories on African and African American social problems has he published. I have lost count. In addition to the HIV and Blacks column, we had the Nigerian Woman about to be stoned, the Crips leader, the Charles Murray and Black IQ story — it does not end. Adam Moss has serious black issues and the NY Times needs to address them.

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