The story has everything: murder, tribal warfare, a famous writer, and a lawsuit involving him and one of the world’s most prestigious magazines. So why are so few media watchers paying attention to the suit recently brought against Pulitzer winner Jared Diamond and the New Yorker? At the very least, it raises questions about how this particular article was cleared by the magazine’s venerable fact-checking department.
First, some background. The $10-million defamation suit was filed in April on behalf of two men in New Guinea, Henep Isum Mandingo and Hup Daniel Wemp. They were the focus of an April 2008 New Yorker article entitled “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” It was written by UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond, who won the Pulitzer for his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. The story was removed from the free section of the magazine’s Web site months before the suit was filed, but here’s a relevant passage:
In 1992, when Daniel Wemp was about twenty-two years old, his beloved paternal uncle Soll was killed in a battle against the neighboring Ombal clan… And Soll had been very good to Daniel, who recalled him as a tall and handsome man, destined to become a leader. Soll’s death demanded vengeance… As it turned out, it took three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs before Daniel succeeded in discharging this responsibility.
Aside from its claims of mass murder, the story also reported that Mandingo, the main target of Wemp’s vengeance, was confined to a wheelchair as a result of an attack. The story was based on Diamond’s detailed notes of a conversation between him and Wemp. The two met years ago in New Guinea when Wemp worked as Diamond’s driver during a bird research trip.
When the lawsuit was filed late last month, the Associated Press and New York Post picked up the story, but since then it has generated little interest among media reporters. However, one press watchdog dedicated time and resources to untangle the allegations.
The Art Science Research Laboratory, which is run by Rhonda Roland Shearer, operates StinkyJournalism.org. It published a lengthy and detailed examination of the New Yorker story around the same time the lawsuit was filed. (Disclosure: Shearer’s site interviewed me when my book, Regret The Error, came out in 2007 and she hosted a reception for me at her offices. We have kept in touch since then but have never worked together.)
Stinky Journalism’s report on Diamond’s story was the result of months of research that included hiring researchers in New Guinea to locate Wemp and Mandingo. When tracked down, Wemp confirmed he had driven Diamond but said he had never spoken to anyone at the New Yorker and had no idea he was the subject of an article claiming he had been involved in theft and mass murder. He denied taking part in any killings. On top of that, the supposedly paralyzed Mandingo was found to be able to walk just fine. (The Stinky Journalism report has a picture of him.) Shearer’s team claims to have unearthed a mass of other errors in Diamond’s story. Diamond and the New Yorker dispute Shearer’s findings.
Up until Science magazine published a story about the affair last week, New Yorker editors and Diamond hadn’t offered any official comment. (The Sciencearticle is available only to subscribers, but some excerpts are here.) A New Yorker spokesperson told the AP, “We stand by our story; we stand by Jared Diamond.”
The Science article notes that the New Yorker’s fact-checker was unable to track down Wemp or Mandingo before the story was published. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, said the checker in question “is one of the best I have ever had the privilege of working with.” In terms of fact-checking, he said:
we had Jared Diamond’s meticulous, detailed notes from the 2006 interview with Daniel Wemp, … and we consulted with people with expertise in the Southern Highlands, who confirmed that Daniel Wemp’s description of the revenge battle was consistent with known practice.
After Shearer located Wemp last year, she put him in touch with the magazine. The fact-checker interviewed him by phone in August and the magazine says that “Wemp raised only relatively minor factual objections to Diamond’s account and asserted that the stories were basically true,” according to Science. However, the New Yorker soon complied with a request from Wemp, passed on by Shearer, that the article be removed from the Web site. That’s why it’s now only available to subscribers. The magazine’s lawyer said this was a gesture of “good will.”
It appears as though Wemp told one version of the story to Diamond and another to Shearer’s researcher. The New Yorker says he reverted to his original story when a fact-checker was finally able to speak with him. This makes for a confusing situation. It may in fact require a court to sort it out.
But let’s set aside the lawsuit for a moment and rewind to when the magazine was checking the story. It had what was basically a single-source story, and it wasn’t able to check the article with the source, Daniel Wemp. The story itself also contained some very serious criminal allegations against the source in question. The dilemma is obvious: should you publish without getting some level of confirmation from the source or another party with specific knowledge of the events in question?
True, Diamond provided the magazine with what is by all accounts a notebook filled with detailed notes from his interview with Wemp, in addition to some recorded notes he made for himself. And there’s the fact that he’s, well, Jared Diamond, a respected author and scientist. A person’s reputation can’t excuse them from being checked, especially at the New Yorker, but he has impressive credentials. Was that a factor in deciding to go to print without further confirmation?
In the end, the magazine decided that Diamond’s notes were enough to move ahead with the story. (The experts it contacted had no specific knowledge of the events.) It also made the decision to use Wemp’s real name, thus implicating him in the murders. Remnick told Science that using real names is the standard journalistic practice, which is, of course, true.
“They thought they were being true to journalistic principles,” Michael Balter, the author of the Science article, told me. “An anthropologist would use pseudonyms. The problem in this situation is that you’ve got a principal named source, and it’s basically a one-source story… If you can’t find the original source, then what do you do when you’ve got somebody named as being involved in criminal behavior?”
Exactly. I researched the practice of magazine fact-checking and interviewed current and former New Yorker fact-checkers for my book. I can’t help but express a certain level of surprise that the story ended up in print. A reporter’s notes are a valid source of facts, but they are not the preferred way to check a story. Nor should they be the only source of information when it comes to such serious allegations.
Fact-checkers everywhere learned the perils of notes-only checking thanks to Stephen Glass. He got away with fabricating articles because he also fabricated his notes. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Diamond forged his notes. I don’t think that’s the case in any way, shape or form. My guess, and that’s all it is at this point, is that Wemp spun some tall tales without realizing they could come back to haunt him. One expert quoted in the Science article suggests this was the case:
Anthropologist Pauline Wiessner of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, a leading expert on tribal warfare in PNG, thinks Diamond was naïve if he accepted Wemp’s stories at face value, because young men in PNG often exaggerate their tribal warfare exploits or make them up entirely. “I could have told him immediately that it was a tall tale, an embellished story. I hear lots of them but don’t publish them because they are not true.”
As of now, there exist two very different versions of this tale of vengeance. In the end, someone’s reputation will certainly be vanquished.
Correction of the Week
Maureen Dowd’s column on Sunday, about torture, failed to attribute a paragraph about the timeline for prisoner abuse to Josh Marshall’s blog at Talking Points Memo. — New York Times