January 10, 2006

Three Monumental Hoaxes, One Common Thread

Three recent stories — one scientific, one political, and one literary — have been exposed as scams or hoaxes of epic proportions:

  1. North Korean Researcher DisgracedWhatever “cloning pioneer” Hwang Woo-suk had been clinging to is gone (HT Drudge):

    Korean University Says Cloning Claim Faked
    The now-disgraced South Korean researcher who stunned the scientific community with his claim to have cloned human embryonic stem cells faked his results, relying on “fabricated data,” his university said Tuesday.
    The latest revelation doomed Hwang Woo-suk’s reputation as a cloning pioneer, already damaged by the finding that the veterinarian’s claim in 2005 to have developed 11 patient-specific stem cell lines was false.
    Hwang “did not have any proof to show that cloned embryonic stem cells were ever created,” an investigating panel at Seoul National University said in a report Tuesday, disputing claims in Hwang’s 2004 paper in the journal Science purporting that he cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it.

  2. Student Admits Lying about Visits by Federal AgentsJust before Christmas, the hoaxster who made this claim retracted it (excerpt is of paragraphs 1, 2, and 5 of the linked Harvard Crimson story):

    UMass Student Admits Inventing ‘Little Red’ Tale
    The University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth student who said he was visited by federal agents after attempting to borrow Mao Tse-Tung’s “Little Red Book” through an interlibrary loan has admitted that his story was a fraud.
    ….. The UMass-Dartmouth student originally said two officials from the Department of Homeland Security had shown up at his home to question him about his interest in the “Little Red Book,” the Chinese Communist leader’s seminal text. But in a meeting on Dec. 22 with two faculty members, a school official, and a reporter for The Standard-Times, the student’s story began to evaporate.
    Pressed for details of the incident, the student described yet another encounter with federal agents at his family’s home, according to Brian G. Williams, an associate professor of history at UMass-Dartmouth, who attended the meeting. But Williams said that when he visited the student’s house, his family knew nothing about the supposed agents or their visits. Confronted by Williams, the student broke down and admitted that he had made up the entire story.

  3. Best-Selling Nonfiction Book Is Mostly FictionJames Frey’s autobiography about his life of crime and subsequent rehabilitation has been shown to be riddled with “fabrications, falsehoods, other fakery” in a devastating expose at The Smoking Gun (HT Lucianne):

    A Million Little Lies
    Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey’s book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw “wanted in three states.”
    In additon to these rap sheet creations, Frey also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students. In what may be his book’s most crass flight from reality, Frey remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy’s third victim.
    ….. Frey appears to have fictionalized his past to propel and sweeten the book’s already melodramatic narrative and help convince readers of his malevolence.
    ….. But he has demonstrably fabricated key parts of the book, which could–and probably should–cause a discerning reader to wonder what is true in “A Million Little Pieces” and its sequel, “My Friend Leonard.”

Here’s what they all have in common–a characteristic of their victims (and check out who a couple of the gullible ones were):

They all SO badly wanted to believe.

All three scams fit neatly into the preconceived notions of their targets, who because of that fit, willfully surrendered any skepticism they might normally have had for these outlandish hoaxes:

  1. In the cloning fraud, it’s no secret that The Mainstream Media prefers to report progress in embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) over that made in adult stem cell research (ASCR), partly because of a belief that “breakthrough” results are more likely with ESCR, and partially because success with ESCR could undermine the ethic of human life that supports its protection from conception to natural death, in the process legitimizing abortion and euthanasia. This previous post (“Two ‘Breakthrough’ Stem Cell Stories Get Very Different Media Coverage: Guess Why”) documented press bias in the treatment of two breakthrough developments of similar impact, one relating to ESCR and the other to ASCR, that were announced in the same day. The former received extensive nationwide MSM coverage, while the latter story was mostly in local and regional papers, with very little national press attention. This predisposition to favor ESCR may also partially explain how Hwang’s research got past the now shown to be overrated process of scientific peer review.
  2. The UMass student’s hoax was a perfect fit for the fantasies of those, starting with the student’s professor noted earlier, then to reporters, and finally to opportunistic politicians, who want to see the current presidential administration and the Patriot Act as harbingers of a right-wing police state (excerpt is of paragraphs 3 and 4 of The Crimson story; bold is mine):

    The bogus tale, first reported by The Standard-Times, a local newspaper in New Bedford, formed the basis for a front-page article in The Crimson on Dec. 19.
    News that the story had been discredited came too late for the flurry of critics, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54, D-Mass., who had already seized on the story as evidence of the federal government’s disregard for civil liberties.

    Even after the hoax was exposed, the politician who had been duped would not totally concede:

    Laura Capps, a Kennedy spokeswoman, said last night that the senator cited ”public reports” in his opinion piece. Even if the assertion was a hoax, she said, it did not detract from Kennedy’s broader point that the Bush administration has gone too far in engaging in surveillance.

  3. The person who was fooled by James Frey is none other than ….. Oprah Winfrey (excerpt is the first three paragraphs at The Smoking Gun link):

    Oprah Winfrey’s been had.
    Three months ago, in what the talk show host termed a “radical departure,” Winfrey announced that “A Million Little Pieces,” author James Frey’s nonfiction memoir of his vomit-caked years as an alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal, was her latest selection for the world’s most powerful book club.
    In an October 26 show entitled “The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake At Night,” Winfrey hailed Frey’s graphic and coarse book as “like nothing you’ve ever read before. Everybody at Harpo is reading it. When we were staying up late at night reading it, we’d come in the next morning saying, ‘What page are you on?’” In emotional filmed testimonials, employees of Winfrey’s Harpo Productions lauded the book as revelatory, with some choking back tears. When the camera then returned to a damp-eyed Winfrey, she said, “I’m crying ’cause these are all my Harpo family so, and we all loved the book so much.”

    Face it: Oprah loves to find sob stories. She’s built most of her fortune on them. She and her Harpo staffers cast aside all of their skepticism despite what appear to have been glaring holes in Frey’s “bad guy gone good” story because they so wanted it to be true (to be fair, a great deal of blame should also fall on Doubleday, Frey’s publisher).
    And it’s not like there weren’t some red flags. Here’s one really good reason why Doubleday, Oprah, and many others should have had their antennae up:

    While the book is brimming with improbable characters–like the colorful mafioso Leonard and the tragic crack whore Lilly, with whom Frey takes up in Hazelden–and equally implausible scenes, we chose to focus on the crime and justice aspect of “A Million Little Pieces.” Which wasn’t much of a decision since almost every character in Frey’s book that could address the remaining topics has either committed suicide, been murdered, died of AIDS, been sentenced to life in prison, gone missing, landed in an institution for the criminally insane, or fell off a fishing boat never to be seen again.

    How convenient.

    Thanks primarily to Oprah and Doubleday, a con artist is a millionaire, and untold numbers of people “inspired” by Frey’s lies have to psychologically deal with having been duped. Especially vulnerable are those trying to recover from drug dependency and other addictions who have until now seen Frey as a source of strength.

Though these three recent examples all happen to be from the “left” or “liberal” side of public opinion, there is no shortage of examples on the “right” or “conservative” side of similar breakdowns in vigilance leading to scams and hoaxes of similar proportions (think Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, and Jimmy Swaggart, for starters). I’d like to think that conservatives tend to be a bit better at sniffing out scams and hoaxes, but it’s probably closer to the truth that at least your vulnerability to being duped has an inverse relationship with the amount of power “your side” currently has.

Having said that, I don’t ever recall hearing “it doesn’t matter whether this one’s true or not” excuses like Kennedy’s from conservatives in similar situations. And further, because the people who are usually “first responders” to items like those described here (i.e., Mainstream Media journalists, academics, and entertainers) are overwhemingly likely to have liberal or left-wing biases, more scams and hoaxes that fit their ingrained prejudices will get traction before being exposed, as the three stories cited here certainly did.

So here’s an idea for everyone to begin with (and this certainly applies to personal finance, too): If it sounds too good to be true, it probably almost definitely is.

Here’s one that’s even better for the sensational situations: If it sounds too good to be true, investigate the heck out of it before you embarrass yourself (see this for an “eating humble pie” example).
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UPDATE: Michelle Malkin weighs in on Frey, and USA Today covers. Dean Esmay thinks the implications of Frey’s Fraud are “pretty trivial” (as you can see above, I don’t agree).

UPDATE 2: Other comments on Frey are coming all corners of the blogosphere — Gormania“It’s publishing, folks, get over it. We’re no longer in the arts (major or minor take your choice) we’re in show-biz ad that’s a whole different task master”; Brian Noonan“Nah, nah, nah, you believed the fake felon”; CKGarrett“wow, sucks to be naive and trust people”; The Underpants Project“Wow. Who knew that the key to riches was simply to write an allegedly heavily embellished memoir that gets the push of a lifetime from Oprah?”; Not the Life I Pictured“So, it figures the day after I rave about a book being honest and true, it’s not”; Fac ut vivas“What Frey is addicted to is his “self-will run riot” and his need for attention”; Jon Lowder“New Literary Genre: BioFiction”; Liquid Logic“James Frey has cheated the system by writing bad fiction then excusing it with the phony polish of truth”; Blanton’s & Ashton’s” Give them all cars!”; Independent Sources“Oprah Winfrey will no doubt be employing damage control now that it is clear how duped she was into promoting Frey’s book”; Crap Filter“The jig is up!”; and Mainline Mom -“Say It Ain’t So, James”.

UPDATE 3: Wow — Miss Snark the Literary Agent smelled a rat back in July (HT Books Inq.) and lets loose — “My disgust with this whole foolish mess is not that James Frey lied; it’s that no one in publishing caught him, and now that he is caught, no one seems to care. Doubleday is ‘standing behind their author’ according to Publishers Lunch”.

UPDATE 4, Jan. 11: Frey defends himself on Larry King via USA Today, while Oprah is joining the Ted Kennedy “it doesn’t matter if it’s true” camp:

Winfrey said that the controversy is “much ado about nothing” and that the book’s message still resonates with millions of readers. She said she would continue recommending the book. She said she was “disappointed by the controversy, because I rely on the publishers to define the category the book falls into and the authenticity.

I for one am not surprised.

UPDATE 5, Jan. 13: Lou Schuler“If Frey were a lone fabulist, it would be one thing. But when revelations about a made-up memoir follow revelations about made-up scientific research and a made-up encounter with federal agents over a book checked out of a library, it’s tempting to say there’s a trend.”
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Jan. 10: Outside the Beltway Jammer.

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14 Comments

  1. I like how you’ve tied these three stories together. It’s one of those obvious-once-you-see-it relations. Nice.

    As for the student with the false claims that he was visited by the authorities: I have wondered whether the student exists at all, or whether the whole story was really invented by the professor. The school’s reluctance to punish or even name the student makes me suspect that the student doesn’t actually exist, and they’re sheltering the professor. I have ABSOLUTELY NO proof of this; but after Mary Mapes and the imaginary Lucy Ramirez, I’m skeptical about anonymous news subjects.

    Comment by Martin L. Shoemaker — January 10, 2006 @ 10:23 pm

  2. #1, Thanks for the nice words.

    I wouldn’t be against your theory on the student.

    Comment by TBlumer — January 10, 2006 @ 11:37 pm

  3. Thanks for the link. However, I think you extended a fairly valid premise (that these stories were believed because people want to believe them), then pre-excused your finger-pointing at “the liberals” with a veneer of balance (“there is no shortage of examples on the ‘right’ or ‘conservative” side’”), and then went ahead with the notion that this is a problem for “the liberals” because of some interpretation of remarks that go “it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not”. So after all the build-up and one valid premise, you reach a conclusion that is a stretch based on your personal memories (“I don’t ever recall hearing”). As a position on some admittedly minor issues, that’s pretty thin gruel. Whether or not you recall hearing this or that is hardly the basis on which I would invest my retirement fund. Not that all postings need to be brilliant theses either, but I was noodling around the web before work started, seeing who’d linked to my blog, and came across this and thought I would respond.

    Despite the weak finish to what started as a strong premise here, you still come across as a reasonable conservative. I like blogrolling reasonable conservatives on my liberal blog. It isn’t a balance thing but rather the potential to cross the divide and find common ground I relish. I can do that with reasonable people, not with the ideologues who take stuff personally.

    But going back to your posting, and speaking as a liberal who despises the Patriot Act and is as skeptical as anyone you may meet, I called “BS” on the Little Red Book story when it happened (though not in my blog, just in comments somewhere I found it discussed). I also never meant my remarks, in the piece you linked, to be particularly critical of Oprah or her staff. Do you remember a fellow named Clifford Irving (you might be too young for all I know)? Literary hoaxes manage to fool some people sometimes. I actually thought the Oprah thing was an object lesson in skepticism for “the right”, since that’s the side that seems to spend a lot of time on tales of redemption. Mostly I don’t find the Frey hoax particularly instructive for either “side”, but rather for everyone regardless of politics. I do see how that fraud fits into your premise of “wanting to believe”, but not how it falls on the shoulders of “liberals”. I suppose you regard Oprah as a liberal, which is fine. I never actually paid any attention to her politics. But what her politics may be personally doesn’t make the book fraud story itself a “left” or “right” thing. Like I said, redemption stories are more a “right” thing in my view, having, as they do a strong religious undertone.

    Anyway, thanks for the link.

    Comment by DBK — January 11, 2006 @ 8:26 am

  4. #3 thanks for the nice words.

    I’m rushed but your points are good.

    I vaguely remember Clifford Irving and just went to Wiki to remind myself. The fraud rate seems to have accelerated, though — add JT Leroy in another post.

    The “it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not” excuse when a “liberal story” is outed has occurred in several instances besides Kennedy’s. I wish I had time to come up with a bunch, but the one I remember is of some Central American woman who claimed repression or police-state treatment and was found to be making it up. It’s also an excuse that has been brought out when people fake racial incidents (Tawana Brawley, and one local incident here). For that matter, faking a racial or repressive incident seems to be a liberal thing that doesn’t seem to have a conservative equivalent.

    Comment by TBlumer — January 11, 2006 @ 8:43 am

  5. The Knuckleheads of the Day award

    Today’s winners are author James Frey and his publisher, Dobuleday.

    Trackback by The Florida Masochist — January 11, 2006 @ 9:34 am

  6. Your points are well-taken. I take you at your word that you have seen that excuse used several times before, but we’re still in anecdote-land with those instances. I don’t have the time to research conservative use of the same excuse, but I’m afraid, because that particular excuse fits into a whole world of responses when defending a position and also because I see no way to rationally tie that type of excuse to liberalism except by anecdote (i.e., why would liberals use that sort of excuse exclusively or more than others, since there is nothing inherently liberal about it?), I remain unable to concede the point that there is something inherently liberal about that sort of excuse.

    Comment by DBK — January 11, 2006 @ 10:58 am

  7. #6, I don’t blame you for holding to where you are unless and until I come up with more. Stay tuned (probably longer-term than shorter-term).

    Comment by TBlumer — January 11, 2006 @ 11:10 am

  8. Just acknowledging that I saw your response.

    Comment by DBK — January 11, 2006 @ 2:44 pm

  9. #8, DBK, 1st example was dropped in my lap–looks like Oprah has for all practical purposes joined the “it doesn’t matter if it’s true” camp.

    Comment by TBlumer — January 12, 2006 @ 4:28 pm

  10. Well, it doesn’t change much. How many people have you heard say that it doesn’t matter if there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because now we have to do this or that. In fact, I heard Bush say something about how it’s bad to ask about those weapons of mass destruction just the other day, only he phrased it in such a way as to make it sound like asking about them is treason. Still, it comes down to the same thing: it doesn’t matter that it was all a lie.

    Comment by DBK — January 12, 2006 @ 4:58 pm

  11. #10, this should rock your world:

    The “No WMD” Lie (with LINKED Proof)

    http://www.bizzyblog.com/?p=760

    Sourced and all. Go to the first few comments and updates to see how and why the sourcing occurred.

    So the question really becomes why the admin isn’t pushing this. I don’t know, because it’s all there.

    To refute the post you have to refute every single item in it. Good luck.

    Comment by TBlumer — January 12, 2006 @ 5:04 pm

  12. So we’re upset that he’s not a felon? But now he IS a felon — or at least a felonious liar — so we should be happy that by telling a huge whopper, and making millions off it, he now is what we thought he used to be — a criminal?

    In other words — he really is as confused and mixed up as we cried to read he was.

    Can we forgive him for indeed being the miscreant that we originally forgave him for being?

    Comment by Valerie Shimoyama — January 26, 2006 @ 9:15 pm

  13. #12, sure we can forgive him, AFTER he and his publisher give everyone their money back. Part of earning forgiveness is doing everything possible to set things right. I don’t see that yet. I’m not holding my breath.

    And part of this may be getting real help. But this time he shouldn’t write about it.

    Comment by TBlumer — January 26, 2006 @ 9:21 pm

  14. [...] Michelle Malkin and Bizzy Blog take Oprah to task for publicizing this book instead of asking hard questions. I think Oprah a serjudgmentr in judgement, something we all do. Including bloggers. She doesn’t deserve a knucklehead award. [...]

    Pingback by The Florida Masochist » Blog Archive » The Knuckleheads of the Day award — August 7, 2006 @ 1:57 am

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