Fragments of the Imagination


Ever notice how some scandals disappear, especially ones that might damage the reputation of Random House? Case in point: the scandal involving the authenticity of Fragments, a concentration-camp memoir by Binjamin Wilkomirski. The scandal got lots of play in 1998, when the fabrication charges first surfaced and were hotly denied. Last June, articles in Granta and The New Yorker suggested that Wilkomirski was not a Holocaust survivor, but rather a Swiss orphan who had falsely embraced Judaism and peddled his fiction as fact.

Last June, this column accused Random House of “stonewalling” about Fragments‘ authenticity. After all, the book was being treated like a sacred cow. In 1996, when Schocken Books, a Random House imprint, published the English edition, The New York Times called it “extraordinary.” Within a year, the book won prizes from the Jewish Quarterly and the Jewish Book Council. And when the attacks started, the book was vigorously defended by Arthur Samuelson, then editorial director of Schocken, and by Knopf’s Carol Brown Janeway. They stood by the book, but refused to vouch for its veracity.

The stalling ended last fall, when an investigation commissioned by Wilkomirski’s agent concluded that his story was not true. In response, the German publisher withdrew its hardcover editions, and Schocken suspended publication. This should have been big news: Random House cops to labeling a work of fiction as fact! Yet it merited a mere 200 words in the Times.

Last week, Fragments was stripped of yet another fig leaf when the London-based Jewish Quarterly withdrew its 1997 Non-Fiction Prize, because the book has “been found to be a work of fiction.” That leaves one party clinging to the illusion: the Jewish Book Council, which gave Fragments its 1996 award for memoirs.

In the name of closure, the Jewish Book Council should take back its award. And Random House should publicly account for its role in this fraud. By remaining silent, the book execs give the impression that they consider it acceptable to label a work of fiction as fact. At least until you get caught.

Four-Pundit Harmony

“Slanted” is not too strong a word to describe the Times op-eds on the World Bank protesters. Indeed, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting used the word in its Times critique, posted at The gist of FAIR’s argument is that in recent weeks, the Times has run five op-eds critical of the protest movement, and “none that supported it, or even treated its concerns respectfully.” FAIR identified four writers who contributed to the Times‘ wretched consistency: Thomas L. Friedman, E.M. Brown, Paul Krugman, and David Frum.

John Moyers, publisher of TomPaine, has a soapbox of his own: He writes ads that appear regularly on the bottom right corner of the Times op-ed page. Moyers was so impressed with the FAIR critique that he immediately sat down to write an ad based on it. The result, which ran on the Times op-ed page May 3, features a photo of a barbershop quartet above the headline, “Four-Part Harmony: The New York Times Globalization Choir.”

“There’s always a danger of being too earnest as a critic,” says Moyers, “so we try to use a little bit of humor.” Asked where he got the barbershop image, he said, “I listen to bluegrass music when I write these things, and it struck me that there were five pieces by four distinct authors. It sounded like a perfect four-part harmony.”

Moyers gives the Times credit for not quashing the ad, which had to be approved by the advertising acceptability department. “If they had wanted to,” he says, “they could have put us through some hurdles to run us past our deadline.” He “loves” the Times, but thinks his criticism is justified. “Their mission is to be the paper of record, and at a time when the public’s attention was greatest on this issue, they presented a single point of view.”

Times op-ed page editor Katherine Roberts declined to comment. “We followed our normal rules in accepting this ad,” said a Times spokesperson. “We keep our columns as open as possible as part of our commitment to free speech.”

Bad Energy, Man

Freelancers are everyone’s favorite scapegoat. But I’ve never heard of anyone getting the treatment Forbes dished out to freelancer Erik Baard in its May 15 issue.

In a 5000-word piece in the Voice last December, Baard profiled a scientist named Randell Mills who has attracted major investment for a controversial energy machine. Baard’s piece described the hype and the questions surrounding the machine and its manufacturer, BlackLight Energy. He even quoted Robert L. Park, a physics expert who is one of the company’s biggest critics.

Early this year, Baard pitched a story about BlackLight to Forbes, which the writer says he later withdrew. Last week, Forbes took a different angle on BlackLight by publishing an excerpt from Park’s new book, Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud.

Park’s flashy contrarian tract has already been written up in Salon and the Times. The favorable publicity makes it all the more ironic that Forbes picked up Park’s rant against the media, which he holds responsible for promoting junk science. Most of the Forbes excerpt appears in the book, including swipes at The Wall Street Journal, Dan Rather, and Paul Brodeur. But page 126 contains a passage not in the book: a short, angry blast at the Voice.

While Baard is not mentioned by name, Park suggests that the freelancer wrote a one-sided puff piece that ignorantly hyped Mills’s so-called hydrino machine. Baard’s piece is sympathetic toward Mills—but it quotes several harsh critics, including Park himself, who explains in theoretical terms why he thinks the machine cannot work. Park compares Mills to the scientists who tried to sell us cold fusion—but so does Baard, when he cites “howls from the scientific establishment that Mills is a relic of the ‘cold fusion’ trend quashed a decade ago.”

At least Baard tries to be evenhanded. But Park’s attack is unfair and inaccurate. After noting that two utility companies have invested in Mills’s machine, Park implies the Voice is “to blame” for promoting this kind of “junk science.” One problem with Park’s logic: BlackLight had already raised the $25 million before the Voice reported on it.

One more complaint: Forbes ran a photo accompanied by the caption “Randell Mills and his hydrino machine.” But that’s wrong. The picture actually shows Mills next to a standard spectrometer labeled “Kratos XSAM 800,” which the manufacturer says is now obsolete.

At press time on Monday, Park had not returned calls, and Forbes was preparing a response to an e-mail sent Friday afternoon.

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