Journalists believe the darnedest things!


Kirn gives as good as he got: A fascinating book review appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post.

The book in question concerns the way a journalist got conned by a con man. The journalist is question is Walter Kirn. In his new book, he refers to himself as a dupe.

Kirn was conned by someone he believed to be a member of the Rockefeller clan. In fact, Kirn’s friend was a long-time Bavarian con man who ended up getting tried and convicted of murder last year in New York.

(The murder occurred in 1985.)

Kirn had known the impostor for fifteen years. In his review, Heller McAlpin raises an apparently excellent point:
MCALPIN (3/2/14): [Kirn’s] improbable friendship began in 1998 when, restless between books and awaiting the birth of his first child, he agreed to transport a crippled dog from his home in Montana to her new adoptive owner in Manhattan, an apparently wealthy stranger named Clark Rockefeller. From the start, the man raises red flags with his claims of having attended Yale at 14, being a “freelance central banker” (whatever that is) and owning a private plane that, alas, was unavailable to transport the dog. Readers might find it odd that despite Clark’s dodgy assertions, Kirn, a veteran reporter, never double-checks any of them, even after Google searches make it so easy.
McAlpin is surprised that Kirn, an experienced journalist, didn’t check any facts. By way of contrast, our experience since 1998 has taught us that the nation’s experienced journalists never check any facts.

Admit it! We’ve been right almost all the darn time! You’ll rarely go wrong if you bet on the claim that they won’t check any facts!

In some ways, McAlpin fulfills our unflattering portrait. Just like that, he is accepting Kirn’s claims and assertions, a service Kirn once provided to the faux Rockefeller:
MCALPIN (continuing directly): The explanation for this lapse lies in part in Kirn’s yearning to belong, which he also wrote about in “Lost in the Meritocracy,” his 2009 book about feeling like an outsider at Princeton. The word “con” derives from “confidence scam”—a swindle achieved by winning a person’s confidence under false pretenses. Clearly, someone with shaky self-confidence makes an easier mark.

Kirn writes: “I recalled meeting a few people like him in college at Princeton—pedigreed, boastful, overschooled eccentrics who spoke like cousins of Katharine Hepburn—but I’d been raised in rural Minnesota, deep in manure-scented dairy country, and I’d never succeeded in getting close to them. Their clubs wouldn’t have me, I didn’t play their sports.” He goes further, spelling out his susceptibility with brutal honesty: Clark was “a man I believed to be a Rockefeller largely because I hoped to be the friend of one.” If Gerhartsreiter had taken a less potent, freighted alias, would Kirn have bitten the bait? But “a Rockefeller...pouring out his troubles to a mere Kirn”—irresistible.
It certainly makes a good story! It might also make a good career move. According to McAlpin, Kirn’s book is being “touted as a 21st-century In Cold Blood.”

We see a certain irony here. Just like that, McAlpin is accepting and restating Kirn’s account of what happened. By his second paragraph, he’s even vouching for Kirn’s “brutal honesty.”

How are we supposed to know that Kirn is being honest at all? Isn’t it possible that Kirn has made McAlpin a dupe?

In the modern press corps, very few facts will ever get checked. Depending on the power relations, explanations may be accepted without, to borrow the old Hitchcock phrase, a shadow of a doubt.

Greatest tales of the Oscars: In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), young Teresa Wright discovers that her visiting uncle, Joseph Cotten, is guilty of murder back in New York.

It was Wright's fourth film, the first for which she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination. A few years later, she gave the studios some lip, and her career declined.


  1. This is how Oprah got into trouble, recommending books that had been fabricated by their authors without apparent verification by the publisher. It used to be the publishers did some fact checking. That doesn't seem to happen any more, just as copy editing doesn't happen either. Instead, authors sign a release taking responsibility for the content. Book reviewers, by tradition, accept that the content of a book is true, because in the past the content had been checked. Perhaps it is time book reviewers did checking, but that does seem to be a bit above-and-beyond their role of commenting on other aspects of content. I just don't see book reviewers as journalists.

    Traditional con wisdom is that you cannot cheat an honest man because cons succeed because the mark wants to believe the con, out of greed or some other need. So, Somerby seems to be suggesting that we want to believe someone like Kirn, perhaps because he is confirming that snobbery makes dupes of people overawed by those with power. However, this same dynamic of wanting to follow the cool kidz, be accepted by the in-crowd, seems to be the main criticism leveled against people on MSNBC, who sell out their journalistic integrity in order to rub shoulders with the rich, famous and powerful who they are supposed to be covering instead.

    I think the question is, if this is a human desire that we are all somewhat vulnerable to, how do we protect journalistic product against it? I think we need to rehire fact checkers. To do that, maybe production of informational content needs to find a better economic model so that it has the funds to hire people essential maintaining the integrity of news.

    1. I think we need to rehire fact checkers. To do that, maybe production of informational content needs to find a better economic model so that it has the funds to hire people essential maintaining the integrity of news.

      I agree. In a way, I'd say Bob is promoting a new economic model by working to make the old model less profitable. That is, if we stop reading and trusting unreliable sources, then they will be forced to better check their facts in order to retain viewers/readers.

  2. Yeah, Wright's career went into decline. Except for the fact that she continued to work steadily on stage, film and screen well into the 1990s, long after "she gave the studios some lip."

    1. Might there not be a difference between getting starring roles (leading to Oscar nominations) and working steadily?

    2. She continued to get starring roles, so you can put that idea to rest as well.

    3. Samuel Goldwyn canned Teresa Wright in 1948. In the 1950s she made unsuccessful movies for less money - that was the decline in her career. Later, she went on TV and the stage. She has two stars on the Walk of Fame.

    4. Try researching more than Wikipedia.

      Teresa Wright had an incredibly strong career post-Goldwyn, one that lots of actors and actresses will gladly trade theirs for.

      And her career took the same arc as virtually every actress who ever lived -- hotter than a pistol while she was young, then tough to find roles. It happened to Meryl Streep, it will happen to Jennifer Lawrence.

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