Behind the Story: Kate Newman on “Book Publishing, Not Fact-Checking”

By Kate Newman

My final project grew directly from our seminars in Germany and Poland. I was struck by the case we discussed of Binjamin Wilkomirski, who claimed to be a Holocaust survivor. Survivors were hesitant to question him when he published his account because they feared it would hurt their own credibility, and yet when his story was revealed to be fraudulent, it hurt their credibility even more.

I couldn’t help thinking of Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan human rights activist whose account of the civil war was challenged by anthropologist David Stoll. In Menchú’s case, the effects were devastating; critics used the book’s factual errors to discredit her entire testimony. In a country where the perpetrators of genocide remain in power, this is especially significant.

One key difference between Wilkomirski’s case and Menchú’s, is that while some of the details in Menchú’s story may be false, the story itself is fundamentally true. She is who she claimed to be.

When we discussed Wilkomirski, I was shocked to learn his story had not been fact checked, and beyond that, to learn how few books ever are. I understand the difficulty of the task firsthand — this summer I worked as a fact checking intern at the New York Times — but believe that publishing houses could do much more to verify the fundamental details of the stories they publish.

In Poland, one of the other Fellows raised the work of Nicholas Kristof. We discussed Kristof’s writing on Somaly Mam, and it seemed to me, in many ways, another case like Wilkomirski’s. Mam may or may not have believed her own story — as with Wilkomirski, we will never truly know — but much as Wilkomirski’s downfall provided fuel to Holocaust deniers, Mam’s exposure will likely hurt the anti-trafficking cause.

I decided to focus primarily on Mam in my final project, given that her case was the most recent. As surprised as I had been to learn that few books were fact checked, I was even more shocked to read that Nicholas Kristof cited Mam’s book as part of what made her story credible. It’s hard to believe a journalist as seasoned as Kristof would defend himself this way.

Our discussions at FASPE left me keenly aware of journalism’s ethical messiness. There are so many gray areas, and in some cases, no clear solution. When it comes to relying on books, though, I will be infinitely more careful. I hope that by sharing my final project, I can urge others to do the same.

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