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True Story

Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

by Michael Finkel

Hardcover, 312 pages, Harpercollins, List Price: $25.95 |

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True Story
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Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa
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Michael Finkel

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Book Summary

Follows the experiences of a journalist who, after fabricating part of a story and losing his job, was mistaken for a murderer and fled to Cancun, where he lived under an assumed identity and forged a complex relationship with the real killer.

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Excerpt: True Story

True Story

Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa


HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 006058047X

Chapter One

This is a true story. Sometimes — pretty much all the time — I wishthat parts of this story weren't true, but the whole thing is. I feelthe need to emphasize this truthfulness, right here at the start, fortwo reasons. The first is that a few of the coincidences in thisaccount may seem beyond the bounds of probability, and I'd like toaffirm that everything herein, to the best of my abilities, has beenaccurately reported: Every quote, every description, every detail wasgathered by me either through personal observation, an interview,a letter, a police report, or evidence presented in a court of law. Nonames have been changed, no identifying specifics altered. AnythingI did not feel certain of, I left out.

The second reason is painful for me to admit. The second reasonI am making such an overt declaration of honesty is that, relativelyrecently, I was fired from one of the more prestigious journalism jobsin the world — writer for the New York Times Magazine — for passing off as true a story that was, instead, a deceptive blend of fact and fiction.

The firing occurred in February of 2002, soon after I wascaught. The following week, on February 21, the Times made my dismissalpublic by publishing a six-paragraph article, on page A-3,under the headline EDITORS' NOTE. The article's final line announcedthat I would no longer work for the New York Times — a line that, Ifeared, represented the guillotining of my writing career.

Sure enough, within weeks of the appearance of the Editors'Note, I was flogged by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, NewYork magazine, an Associated Press report, a dozen different websites, several European, Mexican, and South American papers, andin a four-minute report on National Public Radio. One writerdescribed my actions as "sleazy," "arrogant," "offensive," and "pernicious,"and then concluded that people like me should "burn inJournalism Hell."


I had been informed of the contents of the Editors' Note a few daysbefore its publication, and I'd assumed that responses of this sortmight arise. When someone in the fraternity of journalists fails, it'simportant for the profession to demonstrate that it can be at leastas fierce toward its own as it is toward others. So I devised a plan toshield myself. Once the note was made public, I would retreat intoa kind of temporary hibernation: I would not answer my phone, orcollect my mail, or check my e-mail. The Editors' Note, I figured,would be posted on the Times' online edition shortly before midnighton February 20, 2002. I live in Montana, where the local timeis two hours behind New York, so I determined that I would commencemy hibernation at 10 P.M.

Less than ninety minutes before the cutoff time, my phonerang. I answered. It was a newspaper reporter for the Portland Oregonian;his name, he said, was Matt Sabo. He asked to speak withMichael Finkel of the New York Times. I took a breath, steeledmyself, and said, resignedly, "Well, congratulations. You're the firstto call."

"I'm the first?" he said. "I'm surprised."

"Yes," I said. "You're the first. I didn't think anyone would calluntil tomorrow, after the story runs."

"No," he told me, "the story isn't running until Sunday."

"No," I said, "it's running tomorrow — it's already at thepresses."

"But I'm still writing it," he said, "so it won't be in until Sunday."

"What are you talking about?" I said.

"What are you talking about?" he said.

"I'm talking about the Editors' Note," I said. "Isn't that whatyou're talking about?"

"No," he said. "I'm calling about the murders."Continues...