Finkel Tells 'True Story' of Murder, Mea Culpa
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Michael Finkel was fired from The New York Times Magazine three years ago after fabricating the main character in a story about child slavery in Africa. He says he was wracked with guilt about the lies he told, but Michael Finkel soon had other worries when one of the FBI's Most Wanted stole his identity. Eager to find a story that would redeem him as a journalist, Finkel began corresponding with his identity thief, accused killer Christian Longo, which led to a book, "True Story." Finkel's book traces the parallels between his own missteps as a reporter and the lies of a murderer. Michael Finkel spoke to Steve Inskeep, who started by asking about Finkel's own misdeeds.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
What was it that you did or did wrong?
Mr. MICHAEL FINKEL (Author, "True Story"): Yeah. I had achieved my dream job essentially, which was to become a writer for The New York Times Magazine. I was sent to West Africa to write a story about slavery and chocolate. There were allegations that child laborers on the cocoa plantations of West Africa were enslaved. It was very difficult to interview these young workers, and there were language barriers, and when I got home from my reporting, I made a very foolish decision, one that pains me to this day, to combine a number of interviews together to create the ideal interview, and I didn't tell my editors of this, and I handed in a story that was essentially a combination of fact and fiction. It was a story that broke some of the rules of journalism in The New York Times and a very foolish decision.
INSKEEP: Broke some of the rules of journalism would be the gentle way to put it. A less gentle way to put it would be that, well, you lied. You made up a composite character and gave them the photograph of somebody else and went from there.
Mr. FINKEL: Absolutely, I lied to my editors.
INSKEEP: Why? Why did you do that?
Mr. FINKEL: I was a really ambitious journalist, to say the least, perhaps arrogantly ambitious, and I was afraid to hand in a story that wasn't as good as it could possibly be, and I didn't have the right material, and rather than just telling my editor, `I don't have the right material,' I cheated and, as you said, I lied.
INSKEEP: When you were confronted by your editors about this, when you finally faced the editor of The New York Times Magazine, you were told, `Well, you have a great future ahead of you, just not here,' which turns out to be, I suppose, true. You ended up finding another story.
Mr. FINKEL: It was an unbelievable coincidence, one of those--the truth is stranger than fiction. At the very moment that I was losing my identity as a journalist, I discovered that a person who was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for murder had adopted my identity.
INSKEEP: So who was this guy?
Mr. FINKEL: His name was Christian Longo. He was captured in Mexico, wanted for the murder of his wife and three children. Their bodies were found along the Oregon coast. And when he was captured by the FBI in Mexico, it was discovered that he'd been impersonating one Michael Finkel of The New York Times. He'd been pretending to be me.
INSKEEP: What was he like when you met him?
Mr. FINKEL: He grew up in a very good family, was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. It was a religious family and middle class, and he had a desire to succeed and he started his own construction cleanup business, and where the sort of rift between where norm--where everyone else would go and where Christian Longo went is when his business started to fail, he was unable to admit to his wife, to anybody else that his business was failing, and claimed that it was a big success.
INSKEEP: How good a liar was he?
Mr. FINKEL: Chris Longo had lived for years and years getting away with lies. He had never even got caught for having a stolen car. He was pulled over by the police more than once in a stolen car and was not caught.
INSKEEP: Well, there's the famous essay by the journalist Janet Malcolm, who talks about the way that journalists always use their sources, and I supposed you wanted to use Christian Longo to get this amazing story that might get you back on the boards as a journalist, and at the same time, he was trying to use you, wasn't he?
Mr. FINKEL: It was less of a cat-and-mouse game than a cat-and-cat game, for sure. Longo was manipulating me, and there was part of me that was using Longo to get a story, to help revitalize a career and for some personal redemption, and it turns out that Longo may have been using me as a sort of dress rehearsal, a one-man focus group. Essentially, he was asking me to find holes in his story, any lapses of logic he wanted to know, and it dawned on me eventually that this was the story he was going to tell the jury, and if he could portray himself as a sympathetic, kind, intelligent person, then this is not the type of person who could be accused of this horrific crime.
INSKEEP: You communicated very closely with him at first, and then how did that change?
Mr. FINKEL: We had an intricate relationship. We were friends of a sort, and after he lied on the stand, blaming his wife and after I saw the photos, the feeling that erupted in me was of the utmost hatred, and that's not a word I use very often to describe my feelings and it's not something I like to--it's not something I feel very often. I tend to be a fairly spirited person, but I've never hated anyone more than I hated Christian Longo after his trial, when I realized his guilt and that I had been partially duped. The power of that hatred--I am not a supporter of capital punishment, but at that moment after that trial, I really wanted Longo to be put to death.
INSKEEP: A hard one to summarize, I suppose, but can you describe the way in which this family was killed and found?
Mr. FINKEL: His wife and youngest child had been strangled and then put in suitcases. His five-year-old son and his three-year-old daughter had been thrown over a bridge with rocks tied to their legs.
INSKEEP: You called the book "True Story," which is an effort to attack head-on the question that a lot of people will ask: How can we know that anything you tell us about this murderer or about your own life is true?
Mr. FINKEL: Almost every fact, quote and detail in this book is either recorded on an audiotaped interview or it's written in a letter. Longo and I exchanged more than a thousand pages of materials or it was found in a police report or contained in courtroom testimony, and I was scrupulously careful in constructing the book, but even then, I hired an independent fact checker.
INSKEEP: What's going through your mind now that you're talking to people like me about this book? And we keep asking you about your mistakes.
Mr. FINKEL: It isn't comfortable to talk about it. I feel sort of a prickly sweat of shame on my forehead when I talk about it. It's not comfortable. I feel like sort of my fingernails are gripping into myself. I tried to expose myself as much as possible in the book. There's part of me that just wants to throw the book on the table and run out of the studio and hide and let people maybe write me a letter about what they think about it.
INSKEEP: Michael Finkel is the author of "True Story." Mr. Finkel, thanks very much.
Mr. FINKEL: Thank you very much, Steve.
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.