News & Criticism

The Dipping Point

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Slate's Jack Shafer has a very interesting and pretty disturbing story about the willingness of bestselling author (The Tipping Point, Blink) and superstar journalist Malcolm Gladwell to fudge the truth. The setup is that Gladwell appeared at the "storyteller's forum The Moth," where he told about early journalistic experiences (Gladwell skipped over his connection to The American Spectator and the Wash Times' publication Insight).

That talk, which Shafer calls "mostly bunk," was later broadcast on NPR's This American Life. Writes Shafer:

A storyteller can't have it both ways, instructing listeners to "look it up" while stretching the yarn beyond the breaking point or claiming that smuggling the "baffling" phrase into Post copy became "literally" an "obsession." Gladwell's method, and his decision to let This American Life air his tale, raises … well, new and troubling questions about his attitude toward his audience.

Gladwell isn't having any of it.

"My story was true in spirit," he e-mails. "The details were happily and gleefully and deliberately exaggerated and embellished and made up by me-and I am quite sure that not a single person in the audience the night I told it thought otherwise. Anyone who would fact check a tall tale like that either has no sense of humor or is on crack."

On March 13, after I interviewed him, Gladwell had second thoughts about his Moth talk, qualifying it on his blog with these words:

There is a disclaimer at the end of the This American Life broadcast, to the effect that the Moth is a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales." As I think should be obvious if you listen to it, my story definitely belongs to the "tall tale" category. I hope you enjoy it. But please do so with a rather large grain of salt.

Whole Shafer bit, which fact checks various Gladwellian assertions, here. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in how journalism gets done. And undone.

It shouldn't be surprising if Gladwell stretches the truth. What is arguably his great breakthrough story, The New Yorker piece "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg," is built around the work of legendary psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conceptualized the idea of "the small world" experience later popularized as the movie-buff game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Milgram's work is, alas, mostly bunk itself. As Judith Kleinfeld wrote in 2002 in Psychology Today (the magazine that published Milgram's original writeup):

I had always regarded Milgram's work as one of the great counterintuitive studies in the social sciences and wanted to replicate it. To do so, I tracked down the details of the small-world study in Milgram's papers at the Yale archives.

What I found was disconcerting. Very few of his folders reached their targets. In his first, unpublished study, only three of 60 letters-5 percent-made it. Even in Milgram's published studies, less than 30 percent of the folders got through. Since then, only a few replications that actually spanned cities have been done. Of these trials, few folders made it through, especially across class and race boundaries.

More here.

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  1. The disclaimer at the end of the TAL piece (as I recall, I’m pretty sure I heard it twice) also made a very explicit point that making up stuff in the service of journalism is very, very wrong.

    I certainly didn’t take the story Gladwell told as anything but an amusing story about his early career that may or may not have been entirely true.

  2. the “storyteller’s forum The Moth,”

    Is that where the Godzilla vs. Mothra story comes from?

  3. I heard part of that on TAL. I missed the beginning part about affecting the stock market and deliberately inserting lies. I thought what I heard was true, but I think I missed the disclaimer. That said, even though I was duped, I side with Gladwell. He told it in a venue where no one would have expected it to be 100% true, and it was aired on a program where the producers chose to add a deliberately ambiguous disclaimer, a program that regularly airs both journalism and storytelling. Shame on me for not paying closer attention.

  4. I can’t imagine anyone listening to all of Gladwell’s Moth piece and concluding it was anything other than a Twain-ish tall tale — a blend of fact and entertaining embellishment.

    The story itself involved a major premise to the effect that Gladwell sometimes makes stuff up, and from that, the conclusion should have been obvious.

  5. This is just silly.

    It reminds me of TNR’s “debunking” of “Angela’s Ashes.”

    Apparently, the Irish raconteur who wrote that book – a book that begins with a scene that took place when his grandparents had just had their first baby – sometimes embellishes his stories for dramatic or comedic effect.

    No, really! An Irish writer! I know, because The New Republic dedicated eight pages of text explaining it.

    Bleedin eejits is wot.

  6. i enjoyed the clip on TAL when i heard it a month or so ago. i never once suspected it was true, at least any more so than a david sedaris piece.

    this “debunking” story just shows shafer has zero sense of humor (or is a Washington Post shill…). there was a similar non-story a while back re: sedaris.

    somehow, i expected something more, well, reasonable, here.

  7. The whole point of The Moth is to tell exaggerated stores. Gladwell has full disclosure on his blog at http://gladwell.typepad.com/gladwellcom/2008/03/tall-tales.html

    “There is a disclaimer at the end of the This American Life broadcast, to the effect that the Moth is a place where ‘people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales.’ As I think should be obvious if you listen to it, my story definitely belongs to the ‘tall tale’ category. I hope you enjoy it. But please do so with a rather large grain of salt.”

    Schafer’s an idiot.

  8. I agree with the commentators that going after “Angela’s Ashes” or Sedaris is stupid. But I don’t think Shafer is off base. The point is not the original Gladwell performance in the Moth, the point is that Gladwell has allowed these stories to circulate in profiles about him, and now a radio program, where it is very easy for the tall-tale aspect to get lost. Also, knowing what I do about Gladwell, I honestly assumed most of this story was true when I heard the radio show – he does seem like the sort of striver who would happily fabricate facts to get a better story. He certainly has a reputation for being very sloppy and loose with statistics. And really, if you thought Gladwell’s story was funny, maybe you should question your own sense of humor. Sedaris is funny, Nick Hormby is funny, Eddie Izzard is funny, Gladwell’s just another Ivy League git.

  9. vanya,

    Gotcha.

    Next week, can I tell everyone who they are allowed to laugh at?

  10. vanya,

    I find your sense of humor perverse and often baffling.

  11. B wins the thread.

    I am always encouraged by the basic reasonableness of most of the commenters on Hit & Run. Even when you disagree with each other, most of you make me feel relieved that there are other sensible people in the world.

    I normally dig Shafer, but he’s way off base here. If other journalists used bits of Gladwell’s Moth story as the basis for more newsy profiles, I’d put that on them, not Gladwell.

  12. Damn you, B! I wanted to be use that line!

  13. My story was true in spirit

    Who does he think he is? Dan Rather?

  14. And here I was thinking that Milgram discovered the charge on the electron. Silly me.

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