Three years ago I made an ass of myself.
During a tense moment of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, I came across a funny quote saying that the Greek parliament had underground tunnels through which members could escape if protesters were to enter the building.
The original story was posted on a Greek-language website, and a writer who I thought was normally sensible had vouched for it on his own site, written in English. It was late in the day when I saw the quote, and I lazily chucked it up on Alphaville. I didn't try too hard to test its veracity.
And, of course, it was bullshit. There are no tunnels.
Within the next few hours, a familiar crowd of Greece watchers raked me over the coals on Twitter and in the comments section of my post. I deserved it, and I realized how stupid I'd been. I updated the post and apologized quickly.
My story isn't perfectly analogous to that of Jessica Pressler, the New York Magazine writer who was just fooled by a high school student claiming to have earned enormous sums of money through trading. The story she accepted from the student was admittedly less believable and more consequential for those involved, and certainly it was read by many more people. Mine was just a much smaller deal.
Still, watching her get slammed so aggressively on social media has reminded me of my own mistake and how I felt for days after it happened. And now Romanesko is asking Bloomberg whether the company will withdraw the job offer it just gave her. Other outlets are asking too.
Everyone fucks up, but when a journalist fucks up, a lot of people know about it soon after the mistake is first uncovered. That's as it should be. But I want to emphasize that this is also one of a journalist's worst nightmares. I would guess it's the third-worst, only after being outted as a fabricator (first) or a plagiarist (second).
But fabrication and plagiarism are sins of commission that require calculation and deceit. When a fabricator or a plagiarist gets caught, the readers can never know afterwards whether the journalist is truly sorry for the transgression, or merely for having been busted.
Getting scammed by a lying source when the reporter is honestly trying to get the story right is different. (I hedge this because of extraordinary cases like the Rolling Stone rape story, in which more serious questions about the reporter's sincerity and conduct have been raised. I don't see the New York Mag piece as comparable, whether in the gravity of the subject matter, the potential reverberations of the mistake, or the behaviour of the writer.)
Please don't get me wrong: there's no excuse for it. Spotting deception is part of a journalist's job. But this failing shouldn't automatically designate the journalist as damaged goods. Like crashing a car because you glanced away at the wrong moment, the mistake is still your fault, but it can happen when you're rushed and not paying attention.
Not that it can necessarily happen to anyone, a common defense that I actually don't buy. Some people are such natural bullshit-detectors that they'll never get scammed. Others are obsessively careful. But it can happen to an awful lot of people, and unlike fabricating or plagiarizing, such a failure -- again, if it's the first time -- should be judiciously weighed against the journalist's body of work.
I don't really know Pressler, though I've met her a couple of times at events with mutual acquaintances. But I'd happily wager that she is especially unlikely to get fooled again anytime soon. This kind of experience would leave a mark on most journalists, and there's a good chance it will stay with her for a while.
Speaking for myself, two wonderful things came of my own brief moment of disgrace.
The first is that the mistake left a searing humiliation lodged in my brain, long after everyone forgot about the post -- and it makes me cautious every time something that seems too good to be true, or "too good to check", comes along.
The second is that I befriended a fellow journalist named Matina Stevis. A graduate student at the time, Matina is now a spectacular reporter for the Wall Street Journal, based in Nairobi. She is also Greek, and the way she treated me after I posted the silly quote is what I consider the ideal template for how journalistic peers (and the public) should respond to this kind of mistake.
Like others on Twitter, Matina first expressed annoyance and astonishment that a writer at the FT would be so gullible. But after I apologized, she emailed me to offer sympathy for my having been duped by the Greece hysteria, noting that widespread misinformation had become a problem for a lot of foreign journalists who didn't speak Greek. And she said that if I had any questions about what was happening, I should email her for help.
I wrote back to thank her and to say how dumb I felt. "I'll be glad to help. Chin up :)", she responded.
We had a drink when she was next in New York, and now each time one of us is in the other person's city, we hang out. She's the best. I've never told her this -- because, well, getting fooled was really embarrassing and I never wanted to talk about it-- but I've always been so grateful for the grace she showed me when I felt like such a moron.
I've never forgotten it. I was a nobody blogger, and she had no reason to think me anything but a credulous dipshit. She was nice anyways, and without letting me off the hook for the error.
And I wish everyone would act this way towards Pressler: aggressively pointing out the mistake; demanding an instant retraction and official apology; but then showing compassion afterwards.
Because in Pressler's case, we already know that she very much is not a dipshit. She has done some fantastic pieces through the years, and is clearly a talented journalist and writer.
I'm not trying to lecture anyone here. This is just how I wish everything worked.
Getting fooled is a big mistake in journalism, but I hope that Pressler doesn't lose her job offer because of this episode.
She screwed up, as did the other involved editorial staffers at New York Magazine. Sometimes there need to be consequences beyond a public shaming, but in this case I think it's punishment enough.