Books I’m Reading

Michael Finkel’s True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa is a nonfiction account written by the journalist Michael Finkel about a 4-body-count murderer, Christian Longo, who took on Finkel’s identity while he was on the lam in Mexico. I hardly ever read books in the true crime genre, partly for the crass reason that violent deaths occur in such high numbers that I feel the need to cluster them in my reading. So I read about wars, famines, general misrule, and suicidal expeditions — stuff where the body count per page, and historical consequence, is significantly higher than in the crime genre.

I did read Micheal Finkel’s book, true crime as it is, since the “memoir and mea culpa” part of the story interests me. The memoir is (the real) Micheal Finkel’s, and the mea culpa refers to his having been fired from the New York Times in 2002 for being less than perfectly truthful in an article he wrote for the magazine. From his confession, which I take at face value, Finkel seems a lot less culpable than either  Jayson Blair, another reporter for the NY Times that was exposed for having “made up stories, faked datelines, and plagiarized on a massive scale”, or Stephen Glass, a writer at the New Republic who, well, pulled a fast one as well. Finkel breached journalism code of ethics with one article and not multiple submissions like in the case of either Glass or Blair. He fabricated a single character to tell the stories of multiple individuals, but each of these individuals and their stories is true. He did not plagiarize.

Perhaps it is because of these mitigating circumstances that Finkel seems to have been able to claw his way back to journalism. He wrote an article for the National Geographic Magazine in 2007 and recently released a Kindle single. In contrast, Stephen Glass is last known to be working as a paralegal, while Jayson Blair is now a certified life coach.

Update 11/21/2011: The California Supreme Court is going to decide whether Stephen Glass can practice law. In the words of Charles Lane, Glass’s editor while he was at the New Republic, “now we’ll find out who has lower standards: journalists [who have shunned Glass] or lawyers [whose rank Glass may  join]”.

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