When journalists go too far
I could have been sitting across from a writer of US Weekly or OK Magazine, but I wasn’t. I was sharing an hour of my morning with a journalist from Neue ZÃ¼rcher Zeitung (NZZ), one of the oldest and most respected newspapers in Switzerland. Granted, my interview was for their “softer” weekend edition, NZZ am Sonntag, but even that paper carries the weight of its weekday counterpart’s esteemed name. That’s why I was shocked to read a spuriously devised, albeit glamorous, story of my life when the article appeared.
Let’s get one thing straight: The “journalist” did not slander my name. It was quite the opposite: He had me sharing a photo shoot with Mayor Bloomberg; saving sharks in Miami; buttering up old-school Sierra Club veterans; and convincing motorheads to shut off their cars in exchange for bikini-clad pictures. Ooh, how naughty of me!
He even quoted me in conversations — on topics ranging from recycling batteries to rainforest preservation — that never took place, built off of scenarios that never happened. Even the water I was drinking during the interview wasn’t “glamorous” enough for him. He had me sucking back a Starbucks coffee after a whirlwind tour around the country. Note to future interviewers: I’ve never drunk coffee in my life.
There were so many places in the article that were fabricated, it made my head spin. Out of the 18 paragraphs, I found inconsistencies, mistakes, misrepresentations, or complete trumped-up stories in eight. I probably should have seen it coming. Halfway into our conversation, I called him out for not taking any notes or recording the interview. He smugly responded that he had “a good memory.”
It wasn’t until the article came out that I figured he might as well have the memory of a fish, since much of it was made up anyway. It prompted me to write to the editors at NZZ. I’m all for a little literary flair — when it is based on true events. But self-advertising theater based on occasions that never took place? I don’t care if it is for the sake of making green more glamorous. It’s outright unethical.
Let me say for the record that I was doubly shocked by the Editor-in-Chief’s rather patronizing letter back to me (available for all to read on my News Blog). Even though he said he had “admonished” the writer, he dismissed his series of fallacious storytelling as “mistakes.”
Mistakes?! Oh, I’m sorry. Last time I checked the canons of journalism, “bullshit” wasn’t one of the principles. May I present to you my bitch-slap-happy response to the editor:
Letter to Editor-in-Chief of NZZ dated June 21, 2007
I appreciate your timely response to my letter regarding Mr. Zuercher’s article, “Summer in the City.” I do stand by my word in my original letter to you. I also agree with you on one point: you should not publish made up articles.
Would you agree with me that journalism is about getting the facts right — or at least minimizing error? Is it not appropriate for journalists to fact check an article (something Mr. Zuercher could have easily done)? My question to you is: At what levels do a series of “mistakes” rise to false reporting? And when does a newspaper transcend into tabloid? Is there a formula for that?
Unfortunately for this article, fact-checking would have not addressed the completely fabricated scenarios that Mr. Zuercher has crafted around my career. I find it quite curious that just about every error I find in this article is one that seemingly provides more self-advertising, literary flair. Saying half the article is made up may be an exaggeration on my part. However, the article is only 18 paragraphs long and I have found inconsistencies, misrepresentations, or complete fabrications in at least eight of those paragraphs. I didn’t even bother including some of the small ones in the last letter, but your letter to me prompted me to point out all of them on the following page.
Thanks for taking initiative in regard to the note-taking, but how can you assure me that they were not crafted after the interview? I would also like to think that Mr. Zuercher was taking notes during our interview, but he was not. This is something I not only brought up to him, to which he responded that he has “a good memory,” but something I brought up to my management following the interview.
Thanks again for addressing this concern and making a stand for more ethical journalism. (And yes, I do apologize for the misspelling in your name.)
Summer Rayne Oakes