True stories, tall tales, and the gray space between

Slate’s Jack Shafer drains all the funny out of a recording by Malcolm Gladwell that was broadcast on This American Life. The recording was of Gladwell telling a live audience about his early days at the Washingon Post:

Though he plays his material for laughs, Gladwell encourages listeners to believe him by filling the talk with verisimilitude-building detail. Not once does he interrupt himself to say, You shouldn’t really be taking this seriously. Instead, at one point he urges listeners to "look it up" in the Post archives if they doubt one of his newspaper exploits.

But the talk isn’t verifiable. It’s mostly bunk.

When I interviewed him, Gladwell protested that nobody who knows anything about The Moth would ever take literally a story told there.

"No one fact checks Moth stories, or expects them to stand up to skeptical scrutiny," he e-mails. His story, while based on real events, "is not supposed to be ‘true,’ in the sense that a story in the New York Times is supposed to be ‘true.’ " He continues, "It’s a yarn. In this case, it’s an elaborate joke: it’s a send-up of the seriousness with which journalists take themselves."

If it’s an elaborate joke, no writer appears to get it. In 2005, the New York Post‘s "Page Six" took his Moth presentation at face value, as did Chris Wilson, the author of a 2006 Washingtonian profile of Gladwell, who wasn’t discouraged by Gladwell to think otherwise.

I confess that when I heard Gladwell’s recording on TAL, I was surprised. This was one of my current writing heroes, talking about how he’d made up stuff in news stories he’d written. Could this really be a true story? He sounded so lackadaisical about the story, which sounded like journalistic blaphemy to me.

The disclaimer Ira Glass gave at the end of the piece didn’t cause me to think the piece had been fiction or a joke. I may be in the minority on this, and I’ll readily admit that I’m a gullible soul. But I feel the disclaimer was not strong enough.

Knowing now that the piece was a big fib, a tall tale told for amusement, I’m relieved. I felt awkward that Gladwell had this sketchy past of lying in newspapers, and I’m pleased to know he didn’t.

2 replies on “True stories, tall tales, and the gray space between”

  1. It says something about your skepticism in American journalism that you so readily believed this story to be fact. Many people will manipulate reason to excuse their heroes. (See Steeler minions.) You did not tell yourself “This must be a wild exageration.” You assumed Ira Glass and TAL hold higher journalistic ethics than Malcolm Gladwell?

  2. I fully agree that I tend to be a gullible person.

    In retrospect, I see I should have been more skeptical about the story when I heard it. But then again, the context was that it was presented as part of a show called “Tough Room,” and all the other stories on the show were factual. There was no clarification that of the stories, this one was made up.

    Here’s what they say on the website, which is similar to the introduction on the show:

    Malcolm Gladwell is a best-selling author and famous journalist at the New Yorker magazine. But not always. Witness his story—which was recorded live, on stage at the Moth theater in New York—about his first job in journalism, and how terrifying it was.

    They offer again the statement that “The Moth is a place where real people come onstage and tell true and tall tales.” I continue to find that this leaves open the question of whether Gladwell’s story is true.

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