Originally published in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Straight Story, Curved Universe
Why Michael Finkel is not Jayson Blair
One of the most, yet simultaneously least, productive things I did in journalism school was take Lawrence Weschler’s class in the art and craft of narrative journalism, The Fiction of Nonfiction. Most productive, since Weschler is a pioneer in the field, developing over the course of his twenty-year career as a New Yorker writer a distinctive, novelistic approach. Least productive, since the skills the maestro taught us at New York University, he assured us from the outset, were perfectly useless in what he has taken to calling, in the years since he resigned from The New Yorker, the “temporal frenzy that has come to characterize the increasingly peg-driven, niche-slotted, attention-squeezed, sound-bite media environment of recent years.”
In some ways, the class was antithetical to the very idea of journalism school, where the most literal notion of objectivity reigns. This was demonstrated one day midway through the semester, when, in the midst of the Jayson Blair fallout, Weschler related the story of another fabricator-journalist, his friend Michael Finkel, a contract writer for The New York Times Magazine. But in Weschler’s hands, Finkel, who was fired for writing a story about an African boy who didn’t exist, was less a cautionary tale than a window into the slippery nature of truth.
In the summer of 2001, Finkel, then thirty-two, went to Ivory Coast for the Times to investigate claims of child slavery on cocoa plantations, from which nearly half of the world’s chocolate comes. Children from neighboring countries, and in particular Mali, a vast desert land that is even poorer and more debt-ridden than Ivory Coast, were accepting offers from roving middlemen, hired by plantation owners, to come work for a year on the plantations, after which they would receive (if the crop didn’t fail) all of $150 to $180.
Finkel wasn’t alone. Thanks to the peculiar alchemy that dictates when continuing stories like this one become “hot,” a journalistic hoard had descended upon Ivory Coast that year, and in particular the town of Daloa, in the heart of the cocoa-growing region. Many stories were filed about a slavery epidemic, and they pulled on the heartstrings of chocolate eaters in the West. But after two weeks traversing the well-worn paths that had formed between guides and drivers and translators and interview subjects (former plantation workers, aid workers, and others), Finkel began to doubt the underlying premise of many of these stories: that what was happening in Ivory Coast was, indeed, slavery.
A local group representing the alleged child slaves — the Malian Association of Daloa — arranged interviews for Finkel with former plantation workers who told stories about beatings doled out by bosses who deprived them of food and sleep. All the stories sounded the same, and lacked, Finkel thought, enough idiosyncrasies, not to mention evidence of physical abuse. In the plantations themselves (Finkel says he visited twenty-five), not one boy complained to him of violence. Not one boy said he wanted to go home, or that he’d come against his will. In some cases the children of plantation owners worked alongside the supposed slaves, and it seemed to Finkel that in the majority of cases the living conditions of the owner’s family was no different from the laborers.’
After three weeks in Africa, Finkel had his story, but it was not a story about slavery. It was, rather, a story about poverty, and what desperate people will do for a chance to escape it. It was also a story about how the media, as he would later write, “can generate misunderstandings, and how aid agencies can perpetuate these errors.” Back in America, he pitched this complicated, albeit less sexy, idea to his editor at the Times.
I remember that all of us in the class sensed what was coming next in Weschler’s tale, which was that Finkel’s editor was not so interested in this approach. And we could have guessed what would happen after that, which was that Finkel submitted draft after draft of his story, loaded with characters, until his editor asked if he could tell the story through the eyes of a single character and still get across all the complexities. (His editor, Ilena Silverman, says she remembers “multiple conversations, but not multiple drafts”; his photographer in Africa, Chris Anderson, has said that to compensate for the lack of a child-slavery angle, the Times kept pushing for a “more personal, more human” take.)
But nobody could have anticipated what happened in the end, which was that without such a prototypical character in his notebook, Finkel ate a bunch of amphetamines — high-altitude-alertness pills intended for a coming trip to the Himalayas — combined a bunch of different characters into one über character, and wrote a beautiful piece of pure fiction, grounded in fact, about a boy named Youssouf Malé, who came to the Ivory Coast in search of a better life, in search of a pair of shoes, Finkel writes, that look “like a type of house.” Finkel’s drafts, he admits, always contained some fiction, but now he was inventing a central character out of whole cloth. The Times Magazine published the piece and then, three months later, apologized with a full-page editors’ note that guillotined Finkel’s career. But Finkel’s article, despite its glaring problem, may have provided the most accurate sense of life on the cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast that has yet to appear in print.
Finkel hasn’t written a word of journalism since.
It is not so bad, however, to be a defrocked journalist these days. Michael Finkel has a written a book, due out in late May, about his African misadventure, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, that netted him a $300,000 advance.
The book, as it turns out, is a weird work of meta-nonfiction, an incomparably poor man’s version of Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, with a dubious redemption story thrown into the mix. A few weeks after Finkel was fired, he received a phone call from a reporter in Oregon interested not in the Africa incident but rather in the “murders.” What murders? a befuddled Finkel asked. Why, the Christian Longo murders, the reporter said. But who in the world, Finkel wanted to know, was Christian Longo?
Christian Longo is a man from Oregon who suffocated his wife and three young children in December 2001, then lit out for Mexico, where he lived until he was nabbed by the FBI under the assumed identity of — perhaps you’ve guessed it — Michael Finkel. Later appraised by psychologists as a textbook example of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Longo appropriated Finkel’s identity, as best anyone could tell, because he enjoyed Finkel’s writing and fantasized about being a journalist.
On the basis of this identity theft, Finkel writes, “I had a vague sense that the beginnings of my redemption, both professional and personal, might somehow lie with Longo…if I were able to be truthful with Longo — an accused murderer and a possible con man; a person who might easily forgive deceit — then I’d demonstrate, at least to myself, that I had moved beyond the dishonest behavior that had cost me my job.”
Finkel contacts Longo, now in prison and awaiting his trial, and establishes a confessional relationship in which Longo writes in letter form the history of his messed-up life, and Finkel, in return, serves as his confidant. The give-and-take between these calculating men makes up the bulk of Finkel’s book. “As much as I’d like to deny it, the truth is that I saw some of myself in Longo,” Finkel writes. “The flawed parts of my character — the runaway egotism, the capacity to deceive — were mirrored in him.”
As I said, it’s a strange book.
But back to Ivory Coast, to the world of journalism, and to the question of slavery. Because this is where the most interesting part of this story lies, the part that separates Finkel from the likes of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, yet the part that Finkel decided not to fully address in his book. Ultimately, Finkel’s gimmicky redemption story will probably sell better than any thorough self-examination. But if it is redemption that Finkel sought, he would have been better served to revisit and investigate what happened in Africa and then back in New York, especially in front of his computer. And along the way to try to make an intellectually honest case for resisting the very real pressure on journalists to follow established narratives, to ignore inconvenient wrinkles in pursuit of powerful tales of good and evil.
Of all the coverage devoted to the cocoa plantation story, two pieces stand out. The first is a British documentary produced by the humanitarian agency Anti-Slavery International. Called, simply, Slavery, the film is certain of its obvious premise: that almost every plantation in Ivory Coast uses slave labor, and that people who live in developed countries and eat chocolate are responsible. Finkel’s reporting, to some degree, undercuts the claims of abuse sprinkled throughout the movie (often to the sound of a cracking whip). In Daloa, for example, Finkel tracked down a translator who worked on the film who admitted that its most powerful line — in which a boy accuses chocolate lovers of eating his flesh — rang false. As this translator explained to him, the kids working on the plantation don’t understand the connection between chocolate and cocoa.
The second piece is a Knight Ridder series called “A Taste of Slavery” ,which won a Polk Award in 2001, and which echoed in the halls of Congress when Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Eliot Engel of New York took up the cause and demanded that warning labels be put on chocolate bars. One of the children featured in this series was a fourteen-year-old boy named Aly Diabate, and a half-page photo of him ran next to the series’ first article, titled “Child slavery may taint America’s chocolate.” According to the article there were only “rare days” when Diabate’s overseers or older slaves “didn’t flog him with a bicycle chain or branches from a cacao tree.” But in his book Finkel says that when he interviewed Diabate in person, he said that he was nineteen, not fourteen, and that although he experienced some physical abuse (he was slapped once or twice by the brother of the plantation owner), he never received daily lashings.
The Knight Ridder article cites two reports — one by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization, which found that trafficking in children is widespread in Africa, and the other by UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, in 1998, which found that some Ivory Coast farmers used enslaved children. UNICEF’s point man in west and central Africa, Jean-Claude Legrand, said that neither he nor any of his colleagues knows of such a report (he had several employees try to find it), but cannot discount the possibility that one was written for a small audience. He also said that UNICEF makes a concerted effort not to use a word like “slavery” in reference to the complicated cocoa situation. Interestingly, in 2002 both UNICEF and the ILO took part in a report that interviewed 2,100 cocoa plantation workers and found that none reported being forced to leave their homes against their will; that only 6 percent indicated that they were not satisfied with the employment situation; and that the most frequent reason given for agreeing to leave with a middleman (57 percent of the time) was the promise of a better life.
Reasonable people can disagree about what constitutes slavery. Some might argue that if one sees no alternative to indentured labor, the very lack of a choice is akin to slavery. But something is too easy about applying the word with haste. Variations on the word “slave” appear ninety-eight times in the Knight Ridder series; variations on the words “poor” and “poverty” appear nine times. Lest there be any doubt about who are the villains and who are the victims, a photo of a clench-faced, red-eyed plantation-owner called “Le Gros” (“the Big Man”) appears directly below a startlingly fragile image of Aly Diabate. This is a world rendered in black and white, where children are running for their lives, away from the Big Man, to their homeland, or to a rehabilitation center in Mali that the international agency Save the Children has built to treat former “slaves” for psychological problems. “They are not sure of themselves. They have no confidence. They have fear,” Save the Children’s psychologist, Ibrahim Haidara, told Knight Ridder, reinforcing the series’ view. Interestingly, Youssouf Malé, Finkel’s fictional character, ends up at this center at the end of a year on the cocoa plantations, but in Finkel’s hands things are a little more complicated. Each day Youssouf meets with Haidara, who tells him what a bad idea it was to abandon his family, and who shows him, the reader is led to believe, the documentary Slavery. Malé hears the cracking whip. He sees the one boy whose scars are shown. And he feels frightened, confused and ultimately (because he’d never seen anyone with scars on the plantations) lucky. But when asked about his plans for the future, even after all that he has been through, Youssouf Malé says that he’d like to try to work again in Ivory Coast, only this time in a restaurant, because his parents would want him to. Also, one can assume, for another pair of shoes.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.