A writer undone by a lie tells the story of a murderer

In 2001, Michael Finkel was at the top of his game. He had built a reputation for himself as an ultra- ambitious contract writer for The New York Times Magazine, a journalist with a gift for handling heavy stories with literary finesse.

But by early 2002, Mr. Finkel's career was in tatters. He was discovered to have invented a source in a piece written for the Times.

Why did he do it?

"It was all about self-aggrandizement," he says in a recent interview in his cramped office in Bozeman, Mont. "At least five times a day I metaphysically slap myself for it."

How did it all happen? Rewind to 2001.

That year Finkel received a particularly choice assignment: His editors at the Times sent him to investigate allegations of child slavery in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast. It was, Finkel writes in his new memoir, "True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa," the journalistic equivalent of winning the lottery.

But when he returned from his trip with stories of bruising poverty but no evidence of slavery, his editors proposed a switch. Could Finkel sketch that poverty through the eyes of one boy? He said yes.

On Sunday, Nov. 8, 2001, the magazine published a profile of an illiterate 15-year-old African boy named Youssouf Male who sold himself to owners of a cocoa plantation.

The story ran under the headline, "Is Youssouf Male a Slave?" But when a humanitarian-aid agency raised doubts about the story, Finkel at first tried to cover his tracks, then ultimately admitted that Youssouf wasn't a real boy but a "deceptive blend of fact and fiction," a composite character created from the stories of several real boys. Finkel was fired on the spot, and the Times assigned a reporter to write about the deception.

In the days following, he retreated from friends and relatives, waiting for the six-paragraph Times story to run on Feb. 21, 2002. "More than once," he writes, "I crawled into the cramped, dusty space underneath my writing desk and tore at the carpet, rubbing my fingers raw."

But hours before the Times story appeared, in a twist not even befitting bad cinema, Finkel learned from an Oregon newspaper reporter that Christian Longo, a mass murderer accused of killing his wife and three children, had been arrested in Mexico where he was living under a fake identity: Michael Finkel, a writer for The New York Times.

The real Finkel, his career melting around him, smelled a trail to redemption. He soon sent a letter to Mr. Longo, who was by then an inmate in Oregon.

A correspondence sprang up between the two and eventually led to Finkel's memoir, which chronicles not only his own deceits and eventual fall, but also tells the story of Longo's crimes and coverups.

It also includes a fascinating examination of the nature of truth and falsehood, and the sometimes shaky ground on which one can give way to the other.

The book has received mixed reviews. Although most readers seem quick to acknowledge Finkel's genuine gifts as a writer, some express skepticism or annoyance (or both) at his efforts to explain his own behavior.

It was hubris, Finkel says. If he had it all to do again, the same interviews, same instructions, same time limits, Finkel says he "could have written a clean, B-minus story." Instead, pride pushed him to shoot for an A.

Looking back, Finkel ticks off the pressures he was under - a shorter than usual deadline, a change of assignment mid-stream, the story's experimental style - but stresses that there are no excuses.

"I cheated on a story," he says. "I thought I could get away with it. And I got caught."

Finkel rejects comparisons with Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Stephen Glass of The New Republic, journalists who repeatedly invented major parts of stories.

"The difference is that every single word is in my notebook," he says. "I didn't make up things." (Subsequent investigations showed all of Finkel's previous articles to be accurate.)

For Finkel - who has since optioned his movie rights to Hollywood - the sin he committed lay in the shape he gave his story and not in its essence.

"My article was true in spirit - it was a higher truth than that bound by mere facts and figures - and I was able to delude myself that this was all the truth that mattered," he writes.

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