Phony Slave Tale Causes Big Whup at Times Magazine

When New York Times Magazine editor Adam Moss first heard that a contract writer named Michael Finkel may have taken some liberties in a Nov. 18 profile of an African teenager named Youssouf Male, he hoped he wasn’t about to unravel the next case of a young, talented reporter who, for some reason, decided to make some things up.

“We were suspicious,” Mr. Moss said, “but we believed there might be an explanation of what had happened.” Then, he said, “the story just got darker and darker as we went along.”

On Wednesday, Feb. 13, Mr. Finkel called his editor at the magazine, Ilena Silverman, to tell her that he’d spoken with a representative from Save the Children Canada, a relief organization mentioned in his story, who said the group had found Youssouf Male and he was not the boy pictured in the magazine, in a photograph credited to Mr. Finkel himself.

At that point, Mr. Finkel made an excuse, Mr. Moss said, and told The Times that he had accidentally sent in the wrong photograph and a correction was needed. But Mr. Finkel’s call set off alarm bells at the magazine, and that day Mr. Moss asked his deputy editor, Katherine Bouton, to begin investigating the reporter’s piece in its entirety.

Mr. Moss asked Mr. Finkel for corroboration of Youssouf Male’s existence, but instead, the next day, the writer hopped on a plane from Bozeman, Mont., where he lives, to New York to meet with The Times ‘ editors on Friday, Feb. 15.

Mr. Finkel met with Ms. Bouton first, and in their lengthy meeting admitted that he had written about a composite character-but, he insisted, based on facts gleaned from his reporting in West Africa. After that meeting, Ms. Bouton told Mr. Finkel to walk around Times Square for a bit while she briefed Mr. Moss, who then sat down with his writer.

Mr. Moss was furious.

“It was some mix of anger-fury, I would even say,” the editor said. “Here is a guy with a tremendous amount of talent, and it was just such a stupid thing to do. And at some level, even though you were furious with him, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.”

Mr. Moss said he asked Mr. Finkel “to explain in his own words what he had done and then asked him why.” After the writer complied, The Times responded by terminating his contract, and by publishing a contrite Editor’s Note on Feb. 21.

Mr. Finkel declined to speak with Off the Record, but he did send an e-mail explaining his silence. “As you can imagine it has been a difficult week,” he wrote. “I have been doing a great deal of thinking, and I’ve decided to take some time before commenting further about the situation. Eventually, I plan to write about the experience myself.”

Mr. Finkel also sent along a statement that read, in part: “In order to tell this story in a way that is compelling to read, I made the wrong decision to put together several accounts that were told to me by these young workers and combined them into one representative voice …. The situation that I portray-that of young boys living in an impoverished part of the world who sell themselves to traffickers in order to have the opportunity to work for pennies a day on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast-is absolutely true.”

But Mr. Finkel didn’t offer any insight as to why he chose to do what he did.

One of Mr. Finkel’s closest friends and working colleagues, however, summed up what Mr. Finkel had told him. Photographer Chris Anderson, who traveled with Mr. Finkel on numerous assignments over the last four years, including the trip to West Africa, said that Mr. Finkel probably erred due to stress. Under the pressure of writing for the biggest venue of his career-before landing a Times Magazine contract, Mr. Finkel’s primary outlets were National Geographic Adventure and Skiing magazine-Mr. Finkel buckled, he said.

What really put the pressure on, Mr. Anderson said, was the fact that the West Africa story hadn’t panned out as Mr. Finkel thought it might. “From the get-go, it was like a busted play,” Mr. Anderson said.

Originally, he said, Mr. Finkel was setting out to document the use of child slavery on cocoa farms. But when the two arrived, they both began to have their doubts that the young men they met had ever been slaves. The conditions were harsh, to be sure, but Mr. Anderson said they were resistant to the slavery label that several aid organizations in the region were using. “We started finding that the story was that there wasn’t a story,” Mr. Anderson said.

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.”

Mr. Finkel was getting frustrated, and also had a looming self-imposed deadline: At the end of the summer, he had planned to climb a mountain in Nepal.

“When he finally cracked,” Mr. Anderson said, “I don’t know how long he had been awake, but this had been weeks of rewriting and I don’t how many drafts he had written, but finally he had been awake for literally three days straight; he had not slept.”

Mr. Moss said that Mr. Finkel told him the story that ran was actually a draft he’d written as an exercise, to put down on paper what he wanted to write-but, Mr. Moss added, after a positive reaction from his editor, Mr. Finkel never told anyone at the magazine that it wasn’t true.

Mr. Finkel did go to Nepal, and Mr. Anderson said that during his friend’s time there, Mr. Finkel was completely out of contact with The Times . He claimed Mr. Finkel was so remote that he didn’t hear about the attack on the World Trade Center until days afterward. When he returned from Nepal, Mr. Anderson said they expected the piece, like lots of others after Sept. 11, would be spiked. And soon after Mr. Finkel returned, the two left for eight weeks in Afghanistan.

While he was gone, however, the Youssouf Male piece was put back on the magazine’s schedule. It closed during the first week of November, and Mr. Moss said that his magazine’s fact-checkers had trouble verifying the piece. There are only three full names in Mr. Finkel’s piece, and Youssouf Male, the main character, was unreachable.

One of the other named individuals was a psychologist, Ibrahim Haidara, who had worked at Save the Children’s center for child laborers in Sikasso, Mali. In the piece, Mr. Haidara counsels Mr. Finkel’s composite character, Youssouf Male; in reality, Mr. Haidara couldn’t recollect interacting with Mr. Male when he visited the center. It was the simple fact-checking call that could have raised questions before the piece was published, but as Mr. Moss explained, a language barrier-Mr. Haidara speaks French and not much English-and an e-mail snafu kept them out of touch.

A fact-checker did try to reach Mr. Haidara, who was fired by Save the Children at the end of August, but, Mr. Moss said, she only received a rather garbled response in broken English. As The Times Magazine read it, he was upset about his dismissal and wasn’t going to answer any questions about Youssouf Male. Mr. Moss, who said he has French speakers on his staff, said the magazine left it at that.

“We felt satisfied that the communication in English was going through on both sides and we were not going to be able to get a lot of information from him,” Mr. Moss said. “In retrospect, we should have pursued this more aggressively.”

Off the Record called Mr. Haidara in Paris, where he currently lives. In an interview conducted in French, Mr. Haidara said he saw problems with the story of Youssouf Male when he read Mr. Finkel’s piece in English.

“I think he added another child. I don’t really believe it,” Mr. Haidara said, pointing to details in the story that were inconsistent with his work in Sikasso. For instance, Mr. Finkel wrote that Mr. Haidara taught Youssouf Male to sing the Malian national anthem. “You don’t teach things like that to children. Even I don’t know it by heart,” he said.

Mr. Haidara, in fact, said he sent another e-mail to the Times fact-checker about inaccuracies the day after the story was published. But Mr. Moss said because the fact-checker who received the e-mail was a freelance fact-checker and hadn’t been in the office since, no one was monitoring her e-mail account, and Mr. Haidara’s e-mail went unnoticed until Mr. Moss ordered the new investigation.

Mr. Moss said that the editors went on trust with their writer: “And, you know, that trust turned out to be misplaced.”

In the days after The Times acknowledged Mr. Finkel’s mistake, Mr. Anderson said he’d been consoling his friend. He has fielded several teary, late-night calls from Mr. Finkel, he said. “Obviously he’s shattered in many ways, extremely remorseful. He’s hurting.”

So far, The New York Times ‘ leadership has been content to let the Michael Finkel episode pass as an event confined to its magazine section. Mr. Moss said he alerted executive editor Howell Raines as soon as he got out of his meeting with Mr. Finkel on Feb. 15.

The controversy over Mr. Finkel’s piece comes at a time when rumors about section editors like Mr. Moss being shuffled had already been swirling.

Times sources tell Off the Record that prior to the Finkel episode, Mr. Raines had spoken to Mr. Moss about taking a job where he would oversee The Times ‘ feature sections like Dining In–Dining Out and House and Home, but Mr. Moss resisted the move. The Finkel episode, Times sources said, may force the issue.

Mr. Moss said: “My conversations with Howell are between he and I.”

A request for comment from Mr. Raines was referred to Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, who rebuffed the suggestion that Mr. Moss’ stock may have been damaged by the Finkel incident.

“To the contrary, I think this reflects very highly on Adam Moss,” Mr. Boyd said. “He did what we expect of any section editor: He spotted the problem, he investigated it, and he put us down the road of fixing it.”

Asked to comment about the possibility of Mr. Moss leaving the magazine for a features-editing post, Mr. Boyd said, “Nope.”

-Gabriel Snyder, with reporting by Elisabeth Franck Phony Slave Tale Causes Big Whup at Times Magazine