It's never too late to make a correction, especially when fraud may be involved.
In 2007, NPR Books recommended American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy, a biography of the Kennedy children by celebrity biographer C. David Heymann. The staff also ran a large excerpt from the book. The problem, we have since learned, is that the excerpt is filled with inaccuracies and apparent inventions by the author. I say apparent because the author can't be asked; he passed away in 2012.
Heymann was a best-selling writer of biographies of people such as Marilyn Monroe, Bobby Kennedy and Joe DiMaggio. He had built such a reputation for success that his books were regularly reviewed by the sophisticated press, such as The New York Times, New Yorker and NPR. So it wasn't surprising that reporter Karen Grigsby Bates recommended American Legacy as a must-read for the summer.
Late last year however, a reader with a keen eye said "B.S." Donna Morel, a San Diego-based lawyer and amateur sleuth, became intrigued by purported stories about Robert Kennedy while she was studying Heymann's biography of the senator. She continued for several years, using freedom of information requests to track down and confirm (or deny) many of those reported facts. She found there were falsehoods not only in that book, but also in several others by Heymann.
Morel reached out to the ombudsman's office, as well as NPR standards and practices editor Mark Memmott.
"The excerpt on the NPR website contains a fabricated story line with fabricated quotes attributed to a fabricated person," Morel wrote.
Throughout his career, Heymann's books were scrutinized and criticized due to questions regarding veracity and accuracy. I am curious as to whether NPR employs any type of fact checking process to ensure that its recommended reading lists contain accurate and reliable non-fiction works, and whether any safeguards were utilized prior to recommending Heymann's book.
After independently verifying the accuracy of Morel's claims, Memmott quickly issued corrections to both the pieces.
Editor's note on Sept. 22, 2014: As we wrote last week, serious questions have been raised about author C. David Heymann's work. In 2007, when his book "American Legacy" was put on a list of "late-summer reads," NPR was not aware of those questions.
The problems include material in the excerpt referred to on this page, which is largely based on a purported conversation between Sen. Edward Kennedy and his niece, Caroline Kennedy.
Heymann wrote that the Kennedys spoke during a flight from Paris to New York City on Nov. 20, 2002. But, it appears Sen. Kennedy could not have been on such a flight. He was on the Senate floor to vote the evening of Nov. 19, 2002. On Nov. 20, 2002, Sen. Kennedy was still in Washington, D.C., where he participated in the presentation of the 2002 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
It also isn't certain that the person who supposedly overheard the Kennedys' conversation — Thurston Gauleiter — existed. Research by attorney Donna Morel and by NPR turn up no evidence of him.
Editor's note on Sept. 19, 2014: C. David Heymann died in May 2012. On Aug. 27, 2014, Newsweek took a long look at his career. It concluded that his books were "riddled with errors and fabrications." Spokesmen for Heymann's publisher, Simon and Schuster, declined to discuss the matter with Newsweek. According to Newsweek, it was prompted to look at the questions regarding Heymann's books by San Diego lawyer Donna Morel, who had long been skeptical about the author's work and had conducted her own investigation of his reporting.
Questions about the veracity of Heymann's books have tugged at the author's reputation before. In 1983, more than 50,000 copies of Poor Little Rich Girl: The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton, published by Random House, were recalled from bookstores after a lawyer threatened litigation. Subjects of others books issued denials. But the doubts and denials were lost in the juggernaut of his sales, driven in part by salacious findings that were reported as sourced facts.
Morel's research provided a basis for Newsweek's story, which reported that much of Heymann's work was based on material he made up. The stories are no doubt fascinating. Morel has since been contacting publications that reviewed his materials and asking them to take action.
We talked to books editor Petra Mayer about what, if any, fact-checking safeguards NPR Books uses.
"Those excerpts, almost without exception, get slurped in manually from Baker & Taylor, our database provider," says Mayer. "We format them and attach the appropriate copyright language, but we don't fact check them the way we would any content generated in-house."
It would be impractical for the media to individually fact-check each book before it is reviewed. NPR Books routinely recommends hundreds of books a year – no small feat for the small staff. That particular burden falls on the publisher. American Legacy's publisher Simon & Schuster declined to comment for this piece.
Morel told us that she hopes her work will "prompt a recall of Heymann's defamatory books, and incite the publishing industry to establish fact checking standards."
We hope that she continues her campaign. Her work is a reminder that falsehoods can have a long life on the Internet. NPR's ethical standards very, very rarely allow a story online to be removed, out of respect for our own history, even when it includes making a mistake. But that is why it is never too late to go back and make a correction, too.
Edward Schumacher-Matos contributed to this piece.