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Michael Thompkins
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Guest Blogger Brian Hilling Offers Some Thoughts on a New Type Of Fraud in Journalism that Dovetails with our Postings on Misha Defonseca

by Michael 4/12/2010 9:40:00 PM


Consider this Brian's First Song on this website--there will be more.  --MT

Once upon a time, there were certain kinds of fraud that a perpetrator might have felt safe committing.  In the literary context, we have the fake memoir. Not every fake memoir, to be certain; in a world when pretty much anyone can write a memoir, some frauds will be more easily apparent than others.  Margaret Seltzer, for instance, found herself called out by family and friends all of a week after the publication of Love and ConsequencesMisha Defonseca, however, telling a more obscure story that was difficult to verify, seems to have gotten away with her ruse for a decade before professional researchers—in this case, genealogists—managed to pluck away the vital threads binding together her tapestry of lies.  And this is important, the idea of getting caught.  Because compared to the narcissism we might suggest as a prerequisite for inventing such a fantastic biography, it is hard to figure just what degree of delusion one must suffer to publish fake interviews with famous people.  Jane Thurman reported for The New Yorker last week on the alleged fraud perpetrated by Tommaso Debenedetti.

Last month, Paola Zanuttini, a journalist from La Repubblica, the progressive Roman newspaper, interviewed Philip Roth about his latest novel, “The Humbling,” which has recently been published in Italian. “We had a lively and intelligent conversation about my fiction,” Roth said. The Q. & A. ran on February 26th, as the cover story of Il Venerdì—La Repubblica’s Friday magazine—with a fierce-looking closeup portrait of Roth, and the title “Sex and Me.” Zanuttini focussed on the relationships of Roth’s aging protagonists with their much younger inamoratas, the feminist response to them, and his own marriages and romances. “Your descriptions of sex are ruthless,” she asserted. “Ruthless?” he countered. She backed down a little: “They describe things as they are, raw and naked.” “I am pleased by the notion that I can still be scandalous,” he said. “I thought I had lost that magic.”

The real scandal revealed by the interview, however, came at the end, when Zanuttini asked Roth why he was so “disappointed” with Barack Obama. She translated, aloud, remarks attributed to him in an article by a freelance journalist, Tommaso Debenedetti, that was published last November in Libero, a tabloid notably sympathetic to Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy (who is embroiled in his own sex scandals with much younger women). “It appears that you find him nasty, vacillating, and mired in the mechanics of power,” Zanuttini said. “But I have never said anything of the kind!” Roth objected. “It is completely contrary to what I think. Obama, in my opinion, is fantastic.” He had never heard of Debenedetti, or of Libero. The interview, with its bitter judgment of Obama’s banality, failure, and empty rhetoric about hope and change, was a complete fabrication

And the list is impressive. Debenedetti allegedly routinely faked interviews. The roster Thurman has compiled nearly boggles the mind: two interviews with Roth, and discussions with Toni Morrison, E. L. Doctorow, Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer (who says she does not recognize her own voice on the tape), Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clézio, Scott Turow, V. S. Naipaul, José Saramago, J. M. Coetzee, Elie Wiesel … and more. A lot more. The scope of the alleged fraud verges on shocking. Debenedetti, for his part, denies the accusations. Thurman explains:

Debenedetti said he was completely “shocked and saddened” that all these writers would have denied the veracity of his reporting. When I asked him about the interviews with Roth and Grisham, he flatly denied having invented them, and told me that Roth and Grisham were lying for “political” reasons—because their views on Obama would make them unpopular with left-leaning intellectuals. Roth, he added, might have decided that it was impolitic to express hostility toward Obama because it might spoil his chances for the Nobel.

I then read the list of other writers who had denied or questioned his conversations with them. In every case, Debenedetti asserted that he had invented nothing. When I asked if he could produce any recordings or notes from his interviews, he laughed and, admitting that it sounded like a “tired” excuse, told me that he had lost the tapes in some cases, and in others had “thrown them away.”

Alessandro Mazzena Lona, managing editor of Il Piccolo, called the situation “appalling”. He admits he never saw or asked for verification of the interviews, explaining that Debenedetti is the grandson Giacomo Debenedetti, Italy’s “greatest literary critic of the twentieth century”; he saw no reason to doubt Tommaso.

But here we come to a confounding proposition. When a hoax is perpetrated regarding obscure facts that are difficult to verify, such as Defonseca’s memoir, it seems entirely possible that one could believe they might get away with it. Indeed, in Defonseca’s case, there is some question as to her state of mind; she might well have convinced herself that she was telling the truth.

Debenedetti, however? Mazzena Lona suggests megalomania, which, of course, is not the most clinical of diagnoses. One might suggest grandiose delusions, a specific subtype of delusional disorder, but this sort of armchair, wiki-derived diagnosis gets us nowhere.

The underlying question, in the face of relatively safe presumption that something is amiss about these interviews—after all, that stack of denials and refutations seems convincing, if only for sheer volume—is a matter of what Debenedetti was thinking as he calculated and executed his ruse.

After all, these are celebrities. In today’s glamour-obsessed society, how can one expect that nobody will catch on?

It was not an egomaniacal Roth sifting through internet search results, counting up mentions of his name, that opened the gates of scandal. Rather, it was one of Debenedetti’s fellow Italian journalists asking the Pulitzer Prize-winning author what would, on any given day, seem a pertinent question. What, to borrow a cliché, is the calculus here?

Consider all the stumbling errors. Inventing interviews with living celebrities? Attributing to them political statements? We might note that La Repubblica’s Zanuttini was not asking about some obscure literary extemporization, but criticism of a sitting American president. With the melding of politics, celebrity, and entertainment, does it not seem nearly inevitable that someone else would ask Roth about such comments?

Indeed, the unbelievable myopia of such a scam is Debenedetti’s best—and perhaps only—defense; it is the course he has taken, accusing Roth and best-seller John Grisham of disowning their statements for political reasons. But in light of a growing list of literary figures willing to argue that they have never spoken to Debenedetti, it is a difficult defense to accept.

One can only wonder what Tommaso Debenedetti was thinking.




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