A few years ago, Michael Finkel’s journalism career was as dead as yesterday’s newspaper because he had lied in an article for the New York Times Magazine. Today, the 36-year-old Bozeman, Mont., resident has banked a half- million dollar advance on his first book, sold its film rights to Brad Pitt’s production company and has a year-old marriage with a baby on the way.What made the difference? The fact that a young, clean-cut father in Oregon murdered his wife and three young children, dumped their bodies in the water and then went on the lam to Mexico, using as his alias the name “Michael Finkel” and posing as a writer for the New York Times.
“I’m the luckiest guy who’ll ever sit across the table from you,” says the slightly built Finkel, a man with a big, disarming smile who looks you directly in the eye when he talks. His singular tale of disgrace and redemption has just been published as “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa” (HarperCollins, 320 pages, $29.95), and it’s already earned him attention from CBS’ “48 Hours” and National Public Radio, not to mention a lot of reviews, some of which are positive, some of which are unforgiving of his journalistic sin.Sporting rimless glasses with hip tortoise-shell accents that probably are less than all the rage in Bozeman, Finkel quickly and repeatedly concedes there are “no excuses” for what he did when he took interviews with a number of subjects on a story about working conditions on cocoa plantations in West Africa and created a composite character out of them. While there was, in fact, someone named Youssouf Malé among the young men he interviewed for the 2002 Times Magazine article, “his” story, as Finkel wrote it, was actually constructed from bits and pieces of other young men’s stories.
While some might say that Finkel’s sins were not as great as those of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, in a business whose credibility is constantly under scrutiny, it didn’t matter. Adam Moss, then editor of the Times Magazine, fired him, predicting that Finkel was probably young enough to resurrect his career down the road, but not at the Times. Even now, there are some publications that won’t give Finkel any ink and consider him a journalistic pariah.