A moving, richly detailed New York Times Magazine profile of a boy who became an Ivory Coast laborer turns out to have been a fabrication.
The Times acknowledged in an editor’s note yesterday that Youssouf Male, the teenager described as living an impoverished existence, hacking weeds on a cocoa plantation for mere pennies, was a composite. The paper said it has fired the author, Michael Finkel, a contributing writer to the magazine.
In a typical passage in « Is Youssouf Male a Slave?, » published Nov. 18, Finkel wrote: « Youssouf asked the man about his shoes. He asked how he might be able to get money to have a pair of shoes like that — shoes that made you look important. The man asked Youssouf how old he was, and Youssouf said that he was 14 or 15, though he didn’t know for sure. »
The deception was exposed when a group called Save the Children Canada located the boy pictured in the Times Magazine in a photograph identifying him as Male, and he was not Male. Times Editor Howell Raines said he regarded the falsehood as « a very serious matter » and, after learning of the problem nine days ago and deciding to publish an editor’s note, « we got it into the paper as soon as we could be certain of all the facts. »
« Certainly it’s a serious mistake, » Finkel, 33, said yesterday from his home in Bozeman, Mont., adding that he was trying to convey a larger reality about child slavery.
« I’m obviously concerned about my career, » he said. « I expect people to pick over my other stories, and I fully expect they’ll be found to be fine. . . . I almost always err on the side of caution. In this case I was reckless, but it was isolated. . . . There absolutely are no irregularities in any of the other pieces. »
Adam Moss, the magazine’s editor, said the Times will investigate Finkel’s other stories and expects critics to do so as well. « I’m not in a position to tell you they’re not going to find something, » Moss said. « I hope not. »
Moss said he felt « horrible » when he learned of the composite and was « angry » at Finkel, who he said did not initially acknowledge the lie.
« Particularly with stories of this kind, where the sources are unreachable except by getting on a plane to find them, there’s a certain amount of trust you have to place in the writer, » Moss said. « Our experience with Mike had been excellent. He was not the kind of person who would have raised suspicions. »
Finkel’s eight other stories for the Times Magazine are replete with colorful, down-on-their luck characters in remote corners of the globe, gripping anecdotes and hard-to-check details.
Finkel wrote in last Sunday’s magazine about an Afghan villager who sold his donkey for $80 so he could buy food. He has also written about a 28-year-old Taliban defector, an ailing Israeli man who bought a kidney and young Palestinians revolting against Israel.
In a piece about Haitian refugees traveling by boat to America, Finkel wrote: « Their stares conveyed the flat helplessness of fear. David, whose journey I had followed from his hometown of Port-au-Prince, buried his head in his hands. He hadn’t moved for hours. . . . He spoke beautiful English, spiced with pitch-perfect sarcasm. His name wasn’t really David, he said, but it’s what people called him. He offered no surname. » He wrote David once lived in Florida and had « a penchant for stealing 1964 Chevy Impalas. »
That article won a Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and Charles Eisendrath, theaward’s director, said he now plans to review it for accuracy.
Finkel is an adventure writer who chronicles such subjects as tree climbing and rough-terrain unicycling. He has written for Atlantic Monthly, Sports Illustrated, Outside, Skiing and National Geographic Adventure and in 1999 published a book on his skiing experiences around the world, « Alpine Circus. »
In an interview three years ago with the Montana weekly newspaper the Tributary, Finkel said: « I never do formal interviews. I don’t use a tape recorder. I take notes but occasionally. I mostly go home at night and write my impressions down. You can read my stuff; there are not very many quotes. It’s more impressionistic. »
Finkel said yesterday that he now takes copious notes. But the Times editor’s note said « the writer says that he wrote this article without consulting his notes. »
Finkel said he reviewed his notes but that « in order to break through a writer’s block, I put my notes aside and attempted to write what I knew . . . with a sense of flow and feeling. I know it sounds odd. »
Media critics compared Finkel’s transgression to that of Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter whose tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict in 1980 turned out to be invented, prompting the paper to return a Pulitzer Prize. They also cited the 1998 cases of Stephen Glass, who was found to have fabricated more than two dozen pieces for the New Republic, and Patricia Smith, who acknowledged making up four columns for the Boston Globe.
« This is not as bad as Janet Cooke, but near her end of the spectrum, » said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. He said it was « amazing » that the Times Magazine had published Finkel’s piece without reviewing his notes. « This was not something that there’s no way they could have known. »
Bill Kovach, a former Times Washington bureau chief who went on to run the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said: « The idea of using a composite character is pretty bad. The whole idea is for you as a reader to connect to this person, not this situation, and this person doesn’t exist. »
Yesterday’s editor’s note said Finkel’s 5,800-word rendering of Male — which used no direct quotes — « was a composite, a blend of several boys he interviewed, including one named Youssouf Male and another, the boy in the picture, identified by Save the Children as Madou Traore. Though the account was drawn from his reporting on the scene and from interviews with human rights workers, Mr. Finkel acknowledges, many facts were extrapolated from what he learned was typical of boys on such journeys, and did not apply specifically to any individual. »
Finkel said he regrets the harm to the Times’s reputation. « But I know that the article, at least in spirit, accurately reflects the situation among the young farm laborers of West Africa. »
Why, then, did he do it? « The story is complicated, and I didn’t want to inundate the readers with complexities and numbers. I wanted the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts and felt, wrongly, that a greater truth could emerge using this technique. »
Moss said the magazine will review its usual practice of not asking for the notes of writers « with whom there is a seemingly reliable relationship. » He said he reviewed the notes when « we smelled something funny here, » after Finkel notified the paper of the children’s group’s complaint about the photo.
« It was crystal clear in the notes that many of the things attributed to this Youssouf Male were actually told to him by other kids he interviewed and were their experiences, not Male’s experiences, » Moss said. In fact, despite the story’s depiction of Male having spent a year at the cocoa plantation, the real Youssouf Male ran away after less than a month.
Finkel dropped his denials when he flew to New York to confer with his editors last week. « I think his conscience got the better of him, » Moss said.