Who’s sorry now?

Andrew O’Hagan

  • True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel
    Chatto, 312 pp, £15.99, May 2005, ISBN 0 7011 7688 1
  • Burning Down My Master’s House by Jayson Blair
    New Millennium, 288 pp, US $24.95, March 2004, ISBN 1 932407 26 X
  • The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
    Granta, 163 pp, £8.99, January 2004, ISBN 1 86207 637 5

Perhaps we have to thank Watergate, even Deep Throat himself, that sussurating, parking-lot ghoul, for planting us in a world where the shriek of actuality has given way to the soft lilt of fiction. To me there is a stylistic link between that great moment for the Washington Post and the paper’s worst moment, in September 1980, when they ran a report by Janet Cooke that had everyone talking. Cooke wrote a thrilling story about an eight-year-old boy from a low-income neighbourhood of Washington who was addicted to heroin, a story for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. But the New Journalistic ethos was overstrained in Cooke’s case, for her infant addict didn’t exist. The young journalist got caught, the paper was humiliated, but the only element in the tale that was brand new was the level of mea culpa that seemed to invigorate all the participants.

In recent times, this level of regret has become somewhat operatic, and this can’t simply be due to the fact that so many of the recent journalistic fabricators are American. Britain doesn’t go in for the three-act opera so much, but this country’s journalism is full of fabrications: invented sources, bogus statistics, faked opinion, and even faked photographs, although it is difficult to imagine any British reporter inventing an entire story including his notes, his quotes, his expenses and his subject. It seems we all have something groovy to learn from the Americans both in terms of souping up our stories and in terms of feeling really bad about it afterwards. This new memoir from Michael Finkel streaks across a firmament already glittering with apologetic precedents.

Stephen Glass, once a popular and ambitious young thing at the New Republic, invented email addresses and whole companies to hide his deceit, and later went on to invent a novel about the affair, The Fabulist, which features a not-entirely-well-concealed character called Stephen Glass, who invented email addresses and whole companies to hide his deceit. ‘I don’t know how I can demonstrate my remorse,’ Glass is reported to have said to Andrew Sullivan, the editor who hired him. Sullivan pointed out, not in so many words, that taking a giant book advance and allowing a film to be made from the story of your misdemeanours might not be the subtlest demonstration of remorse. Next came Jayson Blair of the New York Times, whose inventions created a tidal wave of apologies, a 7000-word explanation in the paper, and a subsequent affirmative action squabble that saw the executive editor, Howell Raines, and the managing editor, Gerald Boyd, removed from their positions.

‘I hope you will agree with me that everyone should have the chance to apologise,’ Blair writes in the early pages of his action-thriller-memoir Burning Down My Master’s House. It’s not that you don’t feel bad for Blair (you do) or bad for his bosses at the Times (you sort of do), it’s just that any contagion of piety eventually provokes one to laughter. A stray candle burns the cloth on a holy altar and, the next minute, everyone is wailing in a medieval way about faith and trust. Blair’s book is a masterpiece of such overstatement: you get the impression he will go to any lengths to avoid simply saying: ‘I was stupid. I got busted. It sucks.’ He blames cocaine, he blames Johnny Walker Black, he blames overwork, he blames manic depression, he blames his colleagues, he blames his many relatives in prison, he blames the paper for not taking enough interest in the Holocaust, he blames white America, he blames black America, he blames fast food, he blames 9/11, but most of all, and with enormous flagellating brio, he blames himself, which is a little harsh given those other things are so very much bigger than him. Blair’s book is better when not describing his journalistic crimes and misdemeanours (which is a stroke of luck, given that he doesn’t actually get round to describing them until 34 pages before the end), lighting up when he’s telling us how good he was at having a good time, and also when telling the truth about how stories on the Times are prioritised. For much of the book Blair is having a whale of a time, with a whale of a time’s attendant regrets. He is a bit like someone out of Less than Zero, although in America there is always a higher-than-average price to be paid for having a few drinks. Blair wants to apologise for his whole existence, and the whole of existence itself, in place of just explaining how his ambition got to run so far ahead of him. There’s no doubting, though, that his basic fears say a great deal about what is happening in American journalism.

Not quite as much, though, as True Story. Michael Finkel was another of the New York Times’s ambitious young writers. He’d written a few high-octane things, was liked by his editors, and got into a bit of a state while trying to put together a piece on child slave labour on the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast. He wasn’t finding enough evidence of pure child slavery, and he wasn’t finding the one single experience of enforced work that would turn his assignment into a winner. He interviewed sixty or more workers, and was discovering that the ‘slave story had been blown out of proportion’. He wanted to write a story that would demonstrate ‘how we can sometimes see what we’re looking for instead of what really exists’.

I described my idea to Ilena Silverman, my editor at the New York Times Magazine. I was excited about its prospects; it had the potential, I thought, to be an intelligent, insightful, unorthodox article. Silverman, though, said she wasn’t particularly interested in yet another story accusing the media of getting everything wrong. She didn’t want a piece that might unfairly harm humanitarian agencies. Instead, she suggested that I present all of these issues more palatably, perhaps by telling a detailed story of one boy. Weave an intimate portrait of a single labourer, she said, and through this one worker artfully clarify the fine line between slavery and poverty. ‘Could you do that?’ she asked me.

Finkel said he could do it, but the fact is he couldn’t: his notes and interviews were not up to telling his story through the experience of a single boy, but he was compelled to please Silverman, and he went ahead and made the story up. He uses the phrase ‘composite character’, meaning he put the detail of a number of his interviewees at the service of capturing one boy, but he was daft enough to use a real boy’s name and the paper daft enough to run a real boy’s photograph.

Finkel got caught. He got fired. And on the day the paper published its explanation – one of the mea culpa spectaculars that the New York Times now specialises in – the telephone rang in Finkel’s Montana apartment. It was a reporter from the Portland Oregonian, asking to speak to Michael Finkel of the New York Times. Clinging onto the last vestiges of his old self, Finkel said it was he. The reporter from the Oregonian said that a man named Christian Longo, who appeared to have killed his wife and three children, was on the run in Mexico, posing as a journalist from the New York Times called Michael Finkel. One might choose to describe the phone call as bad timing, but only if one knows nothing about journalism and nothing about human vanity. The real Finkel couldn’t believe his luck.

Longo had read a few of Finkel’s articles. He used Finkel’s name because the name was memorable and also because his whole life had turned into an act: real life was always battering his self-esteem and presenting a challenge to his lies and ambitions, and he imagined that being taken for a guy from the New York Times could make you somebody in the world. Longo pretended to the people he met that he was writing an article on Mayan mysticism, and he ‘seemed like a journalist’ according to one of the witnesses: ‘he was taking notes, constantly writing. He talked about his other stories. I believed him.’ The police caught and arrested Longo in Cancún. Michael Finkel wrote to him and he received a phone call in return. Finkel was clearly flattered by the attentions of the murderer, so flattered, indeed, that he wanted to believe his new friend wasn’t a murderer at all. Longo, meanwhile, was intelligent enough to spot that Finkel not only needed a story but needed redeeming; the journalist had found someone, albeit a possible murderer, who appeared not only to admire him but to be potentially more dishonest than he was. They took each other into their mutually phoney confidences, and then followed that modern pas de deux, where the journalist and the murderer traverse the floor by pressing one another’s pressure points, each person subtly fighting to lead, in what turns out to be a rather frightening danse macabre.

We always want to know the motive for a killing, but just as interesting, in a book like this, is the writer’s motive. Indeed, Finkel and Longo sometimes seem like star-crossed lovers in a screwball comedy, falling over the furniture in an effort to hide their true intentions from one another. Longo phones from prison every Wednesday night, and Finkel listens, soft-soaping and buttering up all the while, gathering material for the article or the book that might make him a respectable writer again. Longo believes in a code of mutuality and friendship that Finkel is not going to honour in the long run, not because he can’t, but because he has no real interest in being admired by a murderer, and more than an interest, an obsession, in being loved by his readers and somehow forgiven by his former editors at the New York Times. Finkel’s account of all this double-dealing is riveting, partly because one believes the writer cannot at any point really see the moral horror at the centre of his dealings with Longo. And it is this: Longo is being dishonest in an attempt to save his life; Finkel is being dishonest, as he was dishonest before, in an attempt to improve his career.

This brings me to Michael Jackson. The trial currently taking place in Santa Monica is totemic, not only for reasons to do with race and celebrity and gladiatorial combat, but as an essay in the terrors of modern journalism. Jackson made the standard mistake of forgetting he was a subject, in his case the subject of Martin Bashir’s film: he thought Bashir was his friend, and Bashir encouraged him to think that, but when Bashir and his colleagues got back to the cutting room the relationship reverted to type, and Bashir made a programme that brought Jackson’s relationship with children (including his own children) into question. In other words, he shafted Jackson. The journalist relies on a sense of himself as the recording angel, the interpreter of truth about the subject, but Jackson’s own cameraman also recorded part of the interview with Bashir. ‘Your relationship to your children is spectacular,’ Bashir says at one point to Jackson. ‘It almost makes me weep.’

In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm called this kind of thing ‘the Wambaugh technique’. The crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh gave evidence for the defence in the trial she writes about, MacDonald v. McGinniss, in which a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, had sued a journalist, Joe McGinniss, for lying to gain his confidence, pretending, for the sake of access and a better story, to be his friend and an enthusiastic supporter of his innocence. At the conclusion of the original trial, McGinniss turned against the murderer and wrote a book called Fatal Vision, which, in the manner of Martin Bashir, throws off all pretence of empathy and understanding to provide a portrait of the subject that is both accusatory and damning.

Wambaugh, described by the defence as an ‘expert on the author-subject relationship’ (chosen to give evidence, along with William F. Buckley, from a list that included Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and Victor Navasky), said that a writer was always wholly justified in being untrue in his relationship with a subject. Here is how the exchange went in court:

Q: Is there a custom or practice in the literary world about whether or not an author should disclose his views to his subject?

A: I believe that one should never disclose one’s views, because it may shut off further communication.

Q: Has that ever happened in your experience?

A: Yes. Frequently [subjects] would ask me questions that if I answered them truthfully would shut off further communication.

Q: And how did you answer them?

A: I would tell an untruth if I had to.

Q: Can you give us an example?

A: Yes. In writing The Onion Field, I can recall one of the murderers asking me if I believed him when he said he didn’t shoot the policeman, and I at that time had interviewed scores of witnesses and had a mountain of information, and I did not believe him, but I said that I did, because I wanted him to continue talking. Because my ultimate responsibility was not to that person, my responsibility was to the book.

Bashir would perhaps say his only responsibility was to the film he was making. Truman Capote would say his only responsibility was to his art. What would Michael Finkel say? One has to imagine that, whatever he says, he is not familiar with The Journalist and the Murderer’s famous opening paragraph: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.’

Joe McGinniss cried when his subject was convicted, just as Bashir wanted to cry when thinking about how good Michael Jackson was with his children, but each journalist, in his turn, relied on his subject’s innate narcissism in order to get what he himself wanted. (For Finkel, replace ‘wanted’ with ‘needed’.) ‘When the moment of peripeteia comes’, Malcolm writes, the subject ‘is confronted with the same mortifying spectacle of himself flunking a test of character he did not know he was taking’. Malcolm saw a Conradian fable of moral failure in the relationship between her two subjects, just as she detected it in her own subsequent relationship with the murderer, but Finkel’s story is even more complex, owing to his need to use the dishonesty of the journalist-murderer relationship to restore himself with his honesty-loving peers.

Having got Longo to think well of him, Finkel moves steadily towards the completion of his tasks:

There was one thing I wanted to get straight between Longo and me. We both knew, from the first minutes of our first phone talk, that we were spiralling around the central topic, and that it was only a matter of time before I’d have to ask him about the murders. I forced myself to remain patient during our initial phone call, and then, when I travelled to Oregon and saw him in the Lincoln County Jail, I held off through the majority of our visit. But as I sat in the booth, studying his face, the urge to broach the subject itched at me with every conversational pause . . . I gathered my nerve. I looked him squarely in the eyes. I spoke clearly and assertively. ‘Chris,’ I said, ‘did you do what you are accused of doing?’

His face remained composed. It was as though he’d been waiting for me to ask this. He was silent for a moment, and I felt he was selecting his words carefully. ‘I can’t answer that right now,’ he said. ‘But I think you know.’ And then he winked at me, winked his left eye, slowly and obviously, as if to say: Hey, our conversation might be monitored so I can’t say anything directly, but there’s your answer.

The relationship can be seen like the relationship between a therapist and a patient, but the journalist is a struck-off analyst who comes across this unexpected, illicit complex patient, a patient whose love (and self-love) the analyst rewards with elements of his own story, knowing all the while that the relationship might prove to be his own professional salvation, a fact that wasn’t unknown to the patient from the start, although he nevertheless believes there is something salutary and long-lasting between them. Finkel and Longo are entwined in each other’s desires and panics. ‘When it came to my Times debacle,’ Finkel writes, ‘I was too humiliated to talk intimately about the subject with any of my friends . . . With Longo, though, I could talk freely and candidly. Compared with the crimes he was accused of, my transgressions seemed so petty that I found myself gabbing away, poking at the roots of my behaviour without hesitation or embarrassment.’

Longo’s ‘charm’ is mentioned, his good looks, his apparent confidence, as if he had much that Finkel lacks, which he does, of course: he has a great story, and access to that story becomes part of Finkel’s drive towards his own rehabilitation. The fact that Longo wants to be a writer himself only heightens the matter. Finkel becomes his writing tutor, sending stories by Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore, and buying him a copy of the New Oxford American Dictionary (‘which cost me $45.50’), as if the gift would begin to compensate Longo for the damage the journalist was about to do with words.

It looks as though Longo may have killed his wife and his three children because he couldn’t stand being thought a failure. He set up a business that went bust, he wrote dodgy cheques, cashed them, and got caught, he stole a car from a dealership and got to the stage where he forged everything he touched. Longo had a pure dread of embarrassment and, as a psychologist told Finkel, ‘he desperately needed to look good in the eyes of others.’ Finkel, in coming to know all this, comes to see how it offers him a perspective on his own terrible fears and embarrassments. Through Longo’s lies, he begins to see his own compulsion to lie: he has lied about speaking French, about having a brother who died in infancy, about having read Ulysses, about his prowess at sports, his ability as a musician:

I’ve lied to strangers simply because it was exciting to lie, or because I wanted to impress them. Perhaps people who’ve spent time on the internet pretending to be someone they’re not can understand – that sense of risk, of power, of semi-illicit thrill. I liked lying . . . I always thought my journalism was immune to such impulses. I wrote creatively at times; I condensed plots and simplified complications and erased some chunks of time, but I was sure I’d always stay within the boundaries of non-fiction: reality could be shaped and trimmed, but it could not be augmented. I had no intention of ever breaking that rule. No intention, that is, until I sat down to write my chocolate-and-slaves story.

Yet, in seeing this, Finkel fails to see that his relationship with Longo is more of the same. He is still excited by the lie, still wanting to impress. It is certainly fascinating to read about, but is it possible to offer a mea culpa that is also a piece of recidivism? In the case that interested Malcolm, a witness says that he always knew the journalist had the option of not believing the murderer: what he didn’t know was that the journalist had the option of not liking him. That was thanks to the efforts Joe McGinniss had put into convincing his subject that he was practically the only person who did truly like him and believe in him. ‘The flaw in McGinniss’s character,’ Malcolm wrote, ‘may be that he doesn’t know how to be anything but ingratiating.’

That’s Finkel’s problem. But disingenuousness can’t easily be allowed to stand at the centre of a man’s account of his escape from the perils of dishonesty. We might find Longo, as the jury did, to be murderous, lying and manipulative, but that will not automatically relieve Finkel from his own manipulations. He was ‘in’ on Longo’s guilt from the beginning, but chooses to be disgusted by Longo only when the trial is concluding and he needs nothing further from him. Finkel has his book, his redemption, and Longo has the death penalty. Finkel claims to have lost faith in his subject-friend when the latter gave evidence accusing his dead wife of having killed two of the children before he killed her. ‘I was mortified that I’d affiliated myself with Longo,’ Finkel writes, ‘that I had actually cared about him.’ And later:

He was acutely aware that I was retreating from him. When Longo was leaving court . . . we’d briefly made eye contact, but I had felt so disgusted with him that my instinctive response was to quickly turn away. Longo referred to this reaction on his letter’s opening page. ‘I do hope that I haven’t lost you as a friend,’ he added.

There you go. Finkel’s instinctive response was to turn quickly away, but not, he might have said, before he had his story and his fill of access to the killer. That is often the nature of the journalistic danse macabre, and how silly of Longo not to have seen where the steps would lead. Despite his ambitions, the murderer showed that he wasn’t a journalist after all: he didn’t have the necessary instinct. Only Michael Finkel was Michael Finkel, and he rises out of the case with a very readable book and a greatly revived sense of self. Loss of life is a relative matter nowadays, and so is betrayal – some betrayals matter more than others. To betray the editors of the New York Times would seem to be one of the great crimes of the moment. One would go to almost any length to make up for it. ‘And so,’ Finkel writes, at the end of his travels. ‘The last thing I want to say about my Times article is this: I’m sorry.’