Last Tuesday, April 26, a disgraced former New York Times Magazine writer named Michael Finkel was doing his best Sebastian Junger imitation, chopping wood on his 51-acre property just outside of Bozeman, Mont.
“This is probably my favorite thing to do. Have you ever chopped wood?” said Mr. Finkel, 36, grunting and wielding an ax. “I love it, coming out here in negative-10-degree weather and hacking away. It definitely makes a man out of you.” He put the logs away and scampered up a nearby hillside, heading for his favorite meditation spot. “I always fancied myself an outdoorsman, even though I’m a Jewish guy from the East Coast,” he said.
In addition to proving his masculine prowess, the slender, bespectacled writer is attempting to smooth over his cracked reputation. In 2001, Mr. Finkel, then 32, was a rising star at The New York Times Magazine, having reported five cover stories in less than two years from locales like Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and the bowels of a Haitian refugee boat. But after some difficult weeks in West Africa, Mr. Finkel filed a story in which he melded several African workers into one composite character. The Times Magazine ran the piece, “Is Youssouf Malé a Slave?”, on Nov. 18, 2001. Mr. Finkel was busted soon after and fired by The Times Magazine’s then editor, Adam Moss.
“It was the greatest gig I could ever imagine,” recalled Mr. Finkel, squinting into the sun on the hilltop above his 2,500-square-foot log house, shredded Tibetan prayer flags fluttering behind him. “I had no specific beat; I could write at long length; I could go anywhere in the world, to all the hotspots. And it was great exposure in The New York Times Magazine. It was the best job I could imagine. Even now.”
Within days of being let go by The Times, Mr. Finkel discovered that he was probably the luckiest fallen journalist in recent memory: He learned that a narcissistic Jehovah’s Witness named Christian Longo, wanted for the brutal murder of his wife and three children in Oregon, had been running around Mexico, hiding from the F.B.I.-by impersonating Michael Finkel of The New York Times. After his arrest, Mr. Longo embarked on a period of correspondence with Mr. Finkel, which lasted about a year, through Mr. Longo’s trial and eventual death sentence (he remains on death row).
The inevitable book deal accompanied this unlikely series of events. Nine publishing houses were interested in his proposal for True Story, according to Mr. Finkel, which was to recount his disastrous fall from The Times woven with the intrigue of the Longo murder trial. (Mr. Finkel said that the best piece of advice he got from any of his potential editors came from Knopf’s “tack-sharp” Sonny Mehta, who told him, “Just tell the story, man. Don’t worry about anything else.”) Several houses made offers, and Mr. Finkel signed with HarperCollins executive editors David Hirshey and Mark Bryant. (An outside fact-checker was also assigned to the project.) The house paid Mr. Finkel a $425,000 advance; foreign rights, an audio-book deal and a Vanity Fair excerpt brought the total close to $500,000. Mr. Finkel said that DreamWorks had expressed an interest in the film rights, but that he had turned them down.
“I got a great advance on this book,” Mr. Finkel said several times over the course of a two-day visit from The Observer. “Fortunately, I’m not hurting for money.”
With the book about to come out, complete with an apology to The Times and its readers on the second-to-last page, Mr. Finkel is waiting to see if he will finally have his moment of reconciliation.
Bozeman, Mont., is the sort of town that outdoorsy East Coast folks flee to so they can wait tables and go backcountry skiing in their spare time.
Over a clinking glass of bourbon and ginger ale in a bar called Boodles on Bozeman’s Main Street, Mr. Finkel said: “Not to be overly dramatic about it, but I feel like my life is divided into ‘before’ and ‘after.'”
He’d been commissioned to write about slavery on cocoa plantations, but found “extreme poverty” instead of actual slavery in the Ivory Coast in 2001. According to Mr. Finkel, a confluence of factors-the fact that his editor, Ilena Silverman, had been away on maternity leave while he was out in the field, and that the news section of The Times printed a version of the story he had planned to write, combined with the intense stress of trying to write his Times Magazine article-had led him to break the rules. He said that he’d been urged by Ms. Silverman to make his piece “very magazine-y” and to “go literary” by telling the story through the eyes of one boy. He didn’t have that story, but he didn’t want to disappoint his editors, he said, so he created a composite of the many boys he’d interviewed. The nonprofit Save the Children Canada recognized the mislabeled photo of the African boy and started raising questions. Mr. Finkel was asked to surrender his notebooks to The Times, prompting him to fly to New York and confess. The Times ran an Editor’s Note on Feb. 21, 2002, explaining what had happened.
Adam Moss, now editor of New York magazine, declined to comment on Mr. Finkel or his book. The Times Magazine’s deputy editor, Katherine Bouton, said: “We were sorry to lose him; we were sorry to see such a promising journalist do such a self-destructive thing. I was also sorry for the tarnish he’d done to the Magazine, but I think we came through it okay.”
Ilena Silverman, who’d been Mr. Finkel’s editor at The Times Magazine and who is still there, said that the events were far enough in the past that she felt uncomfortable commenting on them in any detail; she said that she couldn’t be certain about how many drafts Mr. Finkel had filed or how clearly he’d communicated his problems writing the story.
Ms. Bouton said: “We would never ask someone to make more of a story than the research warranted.”
Mr. Finkel said he accepted full responsibility for his actions. “Definitely, there was no implication from my editors anywhere that I should break any rules,” he said. “To bend them, perhaps, but not break.”
When Mr. Finkel returned to Bozeman, “he was despondent,” according to Brett Cline, Mr. Finkel’s friend and the owner of his favorite watering hole, Colonel Black’s bar. “This was a big blow to his writing career.” Mr. Cline qualified his statement by saying that reports characterizing Mr. Finkel as suicidal at the time were overblown, and described his friend as having a “zest for life.” “He would be more bummed out if he lost his legs and couldn’t ski or mountain-bike anymore,” said Mr. Cline.
A former girlfriend, Anne Sherwood, a photojournalist based in Bozeman, said that she and Mr. Finkel were dating at the time of the Stephen Glass scandal at The New Republic in 1998, and that Mr. Finkel had said that “losing his career in such a way would be his worst nightmare.”
“Our reaction probably ranged from being very sad for him to being almost something stronger than irritated that he would let this happen to him,” said Stephen Byers, the editor at large at National Geographic Adventure, where Mr. Finkel was a contributing editor. “You just thought, ‘Jesus God, when you’ve got Finkel’s gift, that shouldn’t happen to you.'”
Mr. Finkel said that although he’d been profoundly depressed, part of him wanted a respite from the endless airplane trips and crushing insecurity that had him terrified of filing a less-than-perfect piece of copy and blowing his career. He said he always thought about the thousands of other writers who were surely lined up to take his place at one of the best journalism outlets in the country.
“I was working so hard, and suddenly there was a sense of relief: ‘Phew! I don’t have to write any more New York Times stories,'” said Mr. Finkel. “It’s sort of weird to say.”
The Times investigated Mr. Finkel’s other magazine pieces. Ms. Bouton said that “it was a magazine-wide project for a brief period” and that, save for a few small factual glitches, everything had come out clean. ( The Times Magazine also changed its policy and now requires that reporters submit notebooks for fact-checking.) National Geographic Adventure re-examined his previous features for them, too, and was satisfied.
Mr. Finkel clearly relished his work-hard/play-hard persona and characterized himself, without irony, as a “risk-taker.” When asked whether he’d ever been tempted to take liberties with facts on previous assignments, Mr. Finkel thought hard.
“You know,” he said, “there were times when I’d come back from assignment, where I’d be like, ‘Ah, I wish that this person had said this,’ or ‘I wish that I was a fiction writer.’ But no-I mean, I was always scrupulously fact-checked. For the most part, I wasn’t writing about people without telephones, you know? The thought didn’t really enter my mind, ’cause it wasn’t even a possibility. It was like, they’re just gonna call them up anyway. You’d be a fool to do that. However, I definitely have a creative streak in me where I’d be like, ‘I wish it had turned out differently, or-if I was writing fiction-I would do it this way.’ But no-no real temptations.
“I’m not saying this to exonerate myself or anything,” he continued. “But it would sort of be interesting if 10 writers were picked at random, if their work was gone over with a fine-toothed comb-I wonder what the result would be.”
One source who had worked with Mr. Finkel in the magazine world suggested that his lack of conventional training meant that perhaps he’d never learned the rules of news reporting. All this might have been compensated for, in a way, by the fact that he was an excellent writer and was willing to perform just about any stunt to get his story.
“Being able to write this book and focus on one thing changed my life for the better,” said Mr. Finkel. “It was calming; it allowed me to actually date a woman for real and get engaged and get married. I think that nothing has to go at a million miles an hour. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it matured me. Probably about fucking time. It took me 30 years to become mature.”
Michael Finkel spent most of his youth in Stamford, Conn., with his sister and parents. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, majored in economics and contemplated becoming a banker before taking a job at Skiing magazine in New York instead. He got an assignment to live in Montana as a ski bum for a season. He decided to move permanently to Bozeman and freelanced for Skiing, National Geographic Adventure, The Atlantic Monthly and others. He became known for filing long, colorful first-person narratives from obscure corners of the earth.
Mr. Byers described Mr. Finkel as “enormously ballsy and a terrific athlete,” and said that one assignment for the magazine-to ride down the Chinko river in Central African Republic-had been turned down by more experienced writers with safety concerns about the country’s political instability. Since the Times debacle, Mr. Finkel has only accepted a handful of magazine assignments-for publications including Men’s Journal and Backpacker. One feature about a mountain-climbing expedition with his sister that had already been reported at the time of the Times correction appeared in National Geographic Adventure in November 2002, although the magazine said it would gladly have him write for them again.
“Would I be concerned about assigning Finkel a story that required that we trust the writer? I don’t think I would be, but it’d always be there in the back of your mind,” said Mr. Byers. “I’ve got a long history with Finkel, and it’s more of a visceral thing rather than that I’ve looked at all the facts, and I decided on the basis of those facts that I would trust him.”
Most of True Story was written in Mr. Finkel’s office in Bozeman, a former janitor’s closet in a converted schoolhouse, which he rents for about $25 a month. He burns candles and wears billowy earth-toned drawstring pants acquired in Afghanistan or Thailand when he writes. On one wall is a string of snapshots lined up like trophies.
“I think I look like Hunter Thompson in that one,” said Mr. Finkel, pointing to a shot of his unshaven self wearing mirrored sunglasses and engaged in some sort of ” right on!” gesture with a Korean mountain climber in the Himalayas.
“That was right after I was attacked by a swarm of African killer bees,” said Mr. Finkel, indicating a close-up of his swollen red chest, taken while on the rafting trip through the Central African Republic.
“I spent 12 years traveling more than six months a year,” he continued. “I really needed to see the world. It was always Third World-it was hot, buggy. I got malaria. I was arrested [working on a story about] Haiti and had a gun put to my head in various sundry places.”
Writing a book forced Mr. Finkel to stay close to home for the first time in a decade. He now drives around in his white pickup truck, plays ice hockey and enjoys “brown liquors” (according to his friend Mr. Cline).
“Luckily, I’m a marathon runner. Actually, I’m an ultra- marathon runner,” said Mr. Finkel. “Not to brag, but a person cannot run 100 miles-but you can run one mile 100 times consecutively. So I wrote a book, one page at a time.”
True Story is in fact a riveting read. Mr. Finkel’s own travails and self-analysis are elegantly woven with those of his mass-murderer subject, suggesting that writing books might actually suit him. And so far, according to those involved with the book as well as the editors at The New York Times Magazine, the version of history it presents seems to be checking out. But all of the introspection still hasn’t completely cured Mr. Finkel of his all-too-human ability to fudge a little under pressure. When initially asked about his advance by The Observer, Mr. Finkel fidgeted and then said that he’d received “around $300,000,” adding that it was “massively generous for a writer.” The following day, when asked about the higher number ($500,000) that he’d disclosed to a friend, Mr. Finkel said he’d been intentionally “opaque” so as to appear modest.
“Of course I wasn’t being straight with you!” said Mr. Finkel. “There’s a difference between lying and not being straight. I feel like John Kerry here.”