- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

All the news was not quite fit to print in the New York Times recently.
The newspaper banished an award-winning free-lance writer from its ranks after he falsified a story, according to a detailed correction that was long enough to be an article in its own right.
Michael Finkel, who wrote a complex, investigative account called "Is Youssouf Mal a Slave?" for the Nov. 18 Magazine, integrated the details and experiences of several West African youths on a cocoa plantation into a single portrait.
Information pitched as fact also was actually extrapolated or approximated, and Mr. Finkel used "improper narrative techniques" and did not consult his own notes, according to the paper's correction, which ran on page three of the A-Section and was titled "Editors' Note."
"This is the first time I have ever failed in a story. And I never will let it happen again," Mr. Finkel said yesterday in a telephone interview from his Montana home. "I stand by the fundamental truths in my story, and there was no fiction in it. But it was a composite which was wrongly framed and presented, and the New York Times was correct to respond forcefully."
And it did.
"The Times's policies prohibit falsifying a news account or using fictional devices in factual material. Mr. Finkel has been under contract to the magazine as a contributing writer, but the editors have informed him that he will not receive further assignments," the correction concluded.
"What appeared in the paper today is the entire explanation, the entire story," Times spokesman Toby Usnik said yesterday. "We have nothing to add to it."
Mr. Finkel, who has written eight other stories for the Times and was previously under contract with the paper, has spent the last decade writing edgy travel and adventure dispatches for National Geographic, Atlantic Monthly and Sports Illustrated, among other publications.
"I have always tried to combine good journalism with the stylings of literature, something beautiful but factual. But the journalistic side must always come first," said Mr. Finkel, who has written more than 150 magazine pieces and won a 2000 Livingston Award for overseas reporting.
It took about three months for his errors to surface.
On Feb. 13, Mr. Finkel notified Times' editors that Save the Children, a charitable group whose motives were questioned in the Nov. 18 story, had conducted their own investigation and found that photos and backgrounds of the young subjects did not match one another.
The editors then questioned Mr. Finkel, examined his notes, retraced the work of the paper's fact-checkers and corroborated the disputed facts with Save the Children officials.
By the time the conflicting details were sorted out, another story by Mr. Finkel about an ancient Afghan community led the Sunday magazine last weekend. In the correction, Times editors assured readers that the Afghanistan story had not been falsified.
In years past, other high-profile journalists have fabricated or embellished stories to their own detriment, including Janet Cooke of The Washington Post, Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe and Stephen Glass of the New Republic. Newspaper gaffes, in fact, are chronicled on a daily basis at a popular Web site (www.slipup.com).
Ironically, book editors from the New York Times compiled a good-humored compendium of their own corrections on Jan. 20 titled "And Now, A Few Words We Wish Had Never Been Written."
"Nobody's perfect, especially not a newspaper that churned out 138,000 words of news on a typical weekday," wrote Scott Veale, adding that the compendium presented "a cornucopia of winceworthy errors."
Meanwhile, two waggish media analysts have written an entire book on Times corrections. "Kill Duck Before Serving: Red Faces at the New York Times" was published in January by St. Martin's Press.

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