Micheal Finkel, once famed editor for the New York Times Magazine, was given the pink slip after “lying in print” in an article entitled “Is Youssouf Malé a Slave?”. Michael Finkel was known for bizarre stories, specifically stories from places considered to be outside the realm of traditional journalism. In reality, the truth had fallen outside of conventional journalism, and was lost in various undocumented accounts and unwritten notes. In fact, Finkel rarely carried a notebook. The only source of information was his head, and what came out of his head wasn’t always representative of what had gone in. According to the Observer, Finkel claimed to have taken the words of several young workers and “…combined them into one representative voice”. This “one” voice was the fabricated “Male Youssouf’s“. Finkel realized his errors and accepted his punishment without reprisal. How he got in the career-ending mess would come to light shortly after his removal from the New York Times.
“We were suspicious…but we believed there might be an explanation of what had happened.”- Adam Moss, New York Times
When Finkel arrived at the coccoa plantations of West Africa, he soon realized that his story would fall apart without some sort of adjustment. In his words, Finkel describes the whole ordeal as a “busted play”. When he arrived in Africa, he found nothing more than harsh conditions. There was nothing representative of slavery. There was nothing representative of illegal conditions. Something had to be done to save the story. Finkel spent weeks in Africa, attempting to make a child labor story out of something that wasn’t there. Finkel began a draft that was a running article consisting of various compiled stories. According to Chris Anderson, Micheal Finkel’s photographer, Finkel worked on his story for “three days straight”, facing multiple rejections from the New York Times. In Anderson’s words, Finkel finally “cracked” and decided to run the draft through the Times.
After it’s publication, the fact-checkers became wary of the story. Various tips were given to the Times, suggesting significant inconsistencies within the article. Adam Moss, editor for the New York Times Magazine, launched an intricate investigation into the article. He immediately contacted an individual with whom Finkel reached out for information. The man’s name was Ibrahim Haidara, a worker for Save the Children. Haidara pointed out things that never happened, such as Haidara teaching a young child the Malaian national anthem. In addition, Haidara pointed out that Finkel compiled interviews from various children. He didn’t even recall a boy named “Youssouf”. It was discovered that “Youssouf Male” was devoid of all contact with the outside world. After the investigation was completed, Finkel was removed from his position. Finkel could no longer be trusted as a journalist.
Micheal Finkel’s story represents the priority of timeliness over accuracy that has become ever-present in the mass media. As an audience, we expect news to be objective, and free of prior bias. We cannot say that the Finkel story is a complete failure of journalism, as Finkel was caught and ultimately faced repercussions. What we can say is that these stories have unforeseen consequences. Every bit of news that reaches an audience produces an impact, which can fuel a reaction. A reaction that can forever change the world.