True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel

You couldn't make it up: a twist of truth among the lies
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The Independent Culture

Michael Finkel is among that undistinguished cadre of American journalists who have massaged the facts to make a better story. A feature writer for the New York Times magazine, he was fired in February 2002 for creating a composite of a child slave, working in the notorious chocolate industry in Ivory Coast.

Michael Finkel is among that undistinguished cadre of American journalists who have massaged the facts to make a better story. A feature writer for the New York Times magazine, he was fired in February 2002 for creating a composite of a child slave, working in the notorious chocolate industry in Ivory Coast.

Finkel realised that the children's appalling living conditions owed more to poverty than slavery. But he was unable to convince his editors that this was the angle to take in his piece. Instead, he was encouraged to use one child's story to illustrate the issue.

Since no one fitted the bill, Finkel began to invent, and the officials at the Canadian charity that had been his main contact in Ivory Coast objected. Soon afterwards, Finkel was unceremoniously dismissed and the story of his journalistic malpractice hit the headlines.

Back home on his ranch in Montana, Finkel received a phone call from a journalist in Oregon. He braced himself to be grilled about his firing, due to be made public in The New York Times the following day. "No," replied his caller, "I'm calling about the murders."

In a bizarre twist, Finkel discovered that the FBI had just arrested Chris Longo, a young businessman from Portland, for the brutal murder of Longo's wife and their three small children. Longo had been using the name "Michael Finkel" as his alias while on the run in Mexico.

Intrigued and appalled, Finkel approached Longo, who was then housed in a maximum-security prison, for an interview. What followed was a series of detailed weekly conversations leading up to Longo's trial. Any journalist who has written about violent criminals will recognise Finkel's need to empathise with his subject, to woo him by identifying with him, and then the gut-churning moment when the journalist must step back and judge his subject.

Through his interviews, Finkel reveals much about the personality of a deeply narcissistic man who uses every justification for his actions and who is incapable of telling the truth.

Finkel's realisation on the final day of the trial that he hates Longo comes as no surprise. That he reveals this with such drama seems a naïve gesture. True Story would have been a much richer book if Longo had acknowledged from the outset that journalists are not psychotherapists but confessors, as Graham Greene once wrote, who must always have that sliver of ice in their hearts if they are to tell an authentic tale.

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