$72 million liars and Whacko Wayne

I was once an owner of two professional sports teams, I often tell my students.

It’s true, as I owned stock in the Cleveland Indians (when Dick Jacobs took the team public for a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s) and the Green Bay Packers.

It’s one of those outlandish claims that I used to prove a point: Just because it sounds too good to be true, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Conversely, something being accurate isn’t the same as something being truthful.

In either case, don’t take a source’s statements at face value. Look the shit up. Challenge the assumption. Make sure you are sure.

A lot has been written about Jessica Pressler and her story for New York magazine about Mohammed Islam. The 17-year-old claimed he made $72 million trading stocks on his lunch break and the reporter fell for it hook, line and sinker.

As quickly as the news broke, the story unraveled when other journalists started poking holes in the reporting and Islam and his friend, Damir Tulemaganbetov, admitted they made it all up.

Immediately, two factions emerged. First, the 83 percent of the Twitterverse went nuts basically equating Pressler with the reporters who looked the other way while Bush 43 fed them the “WMDs are sold at Iraq 7-11s and we’re just sitting here” lines. Second, reporters, former reporters, bloggers and other people along those lines who told their own “I’ve been there” stories about sources who fucked them over.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had my own house of cards moment as a reporter many years ago.

I was about 21 and working a night desk shift when I got a call from a guy named Wayne. He told me about an incident where he brought his girlfriend back to her place, only to be confronted by the woman’s ex-boyfriend. The ex had a gun and threatened them, at which point Wayne distracted the guy so the woman could run into the house and call 9-1-1.

When the cops arrived, the ex pointed the gun at them (or at himself, my memory being fuzzy with age) and the cops shot/arrested/did something to the guy and hauled his ass off to jail.

I did what anyone would do in that position as a reporter: I called the cops. They verified the ex angle, the arrest and named the guy. They wouldn’t give me the name of the girl or anyone else there, but the stuff I figured I could be sued for matched Wayne’s story. I attributed most of the stuff to the cops, added Wayne’s color stuff and ran the story.

The next day, the unnamed woman called. She read our story and figure out it was about her and she was irate. She said the stuff about the cops and the ex was true, but she didn’t have a boyfriend and wasn’t sure who the hell this Wayne guy was.

I was trying to figure out what happened by working through this with several editors when one of the copy desk vets came over and said, “Oh… that’s ‘Whacko Wayne!’”

Turns out, this guy had a police scanner and would listen to it all night. He would then find a story that was great on the scanner, insert himself into it as a hero and call local media outlets. He apparently got on TV a couple times, on the radio a few more and even made our paper before.

I had just gotten my “Whacko Wayne” cherry popped, apparently.

Was there anything else I could have done? Probably not.

Did that make me any less liable? Not entirely.

Did I feel OK? Shit no.

Other stories I have read fell into that same kind of pattern: Someone had a semi-plausible story, the reporter was pretty much a cub and people all got a good laugh out of the youn’un getting fucked over by a source.

Sure, we’ve “all been there” when it comes to having that moment of journalistically stepping on our dicks. But that’s not Pressler’s problem and it’s not why even with that sense of fuck-up camaraderie I just shared would I side with her in this debacle.

First, she’s not a rookie. According to her LinkedIn profile, she spent two years as a staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and the last seven at New York magazine, where she is now listed as a senior editor. She had a job lined up at Bloomberg News’s investigative unit, before the shit hit the fan with the Islam story and the news outlet rescinded the offer.

Think about this: A SENIOR EDITOR who was set to work the INVESTIGATIVE UNIT at BLOOMBERG got easily snowed by a 17-year-old who claimed he made $72 million trading stocks. Yes, anyone can fuck up but how did that not set off any alarm bells? Most of the war stories reporters traded after the Pressler disaster centered on much more plausible fuck-ups. They didn’t check to see if someone had the MBA he claimed to have earned or they didn’t verify the age of the woman who said she was the youngest member of some group. Even the Rolling Stone story, which fell apart pretty quickly, seemed much more plausible than this pile of crap. According to one person associated with the Pressler situation, the rigorous verification was done by a fact checker at the bottom of the Stuyvesant bridge “for maybe 10 seconds or so.”

Second, and perhaps more damning, was Pressler’s response:

Ms. Pressler, who is leaving New York magazine to join Bloomberg News’s investigative unit, defended her story on Twitter on Monday morning, before The Observer interview was published. “In any case,” she wrote, “it’s New York mag’s Reasons to Love issue, we’re not a financial publication.”

What she basically said was, “Look, I was working on a bullshit piece that didn’t need to be right because it was a bullshit assignment to begin with. Caveat Emptor, bitches.”

One of the best copy editors with whom I ever worked was fond of the line: “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was simple: It’s not just the giant stories you need to go through with a fine-tooth comb. EVERY piece of copy, especially the little bitty ones, need to be put through the wringer. It’s those tiny ones that come back to fuck you hard if you don’t take care.

Had Pressler done a mea culpa and really said, “Look, I was horribly preoccupied/having a bad day and I fucked up. I know it wasn’t good. I know it made us look horrible. I’m really sorry…” well, she might be at Bloomberg News right now. Instead, she came across with a very “fuck off, OK?” approach and that had more people coming after her. It also pretty much forced Bloomberg’s hand, as nobody on Earth was going to read her byline for at least the next six months without thinking, “I wonder if that story’s true…” It’s why Stephen Glass can’t get past the California bar and why Manti Te’o hasn’t talked about having a girlfriend lately.

I’m uncertain where Pressler will go in the future, but one thing is probably certain: If her mom says, “I love you,” Pressler’s going to check it out.

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