11 June 2009

“Essential to Myth”; or, All Publicity Is Good Publicity

In February 2008, the New York Times assigned a writer to profile Margaret B. Jones, author of a memoir about gang life in Los Angeles. This article wasn't for the Arts section. Instead, it was for Home section, a type of coverage that publishers call "off the book page"; publicists like it because it reaches beyond the usual arena.

It turned out Jones was actually Margaret Seltzer, and that her memoir was actually fiction. The Times freelancer didn't uncover those facts. She accepted what her assignment editor had told her, and that editor had accepted what the publisher and author had said. Only after the story ran did people call in with corrections.

Well, you can't fool the Gray Lady twice. Last month savvy journalist Joyce Wadler went out to Wyoming to interview mystery author Craig Johnson. Once again, this assignment was for the Home section, and the focus was to be on how he'd moved to Wyoming after being a New York cop, "working out of the 25th and 23rd Precincts in upper Manhattan."

The story Wadler filed offers hints of what's to come from the first paragraph: the phrase "essential to myth," "conflicting stories...about how old he was when [Johnson] first visited Wyoming," details about his clothing boutique there "not mentioned in his publisher’s literature."

And in the last columns Wadler dropped the bomblets:

Spokesmen for the New York City Police Department, the Police Benevolent Association and the New York City Department of Personnel are unable to find any record of Craig Johnson having worked for the police department.

At a request from The New York Times for documentation, Mr. Johnson, before leaving on a trip to France, where one of his books is being published, sends a photo of an award plaque inscribed to “Special Officer Craig Johnson.”

A special officer in New York City, according to Jason Post, a spokesman for the New York City Mayor’s Office, is a civil service title with “peace officer” powers. Such an officer might work for city departments like health and hospitals services or the Department of Sanitation, Mr. Post says, but he would not be a member of the N.Y.P.D.

Responding to questions about these discrepancies by e-mail, Mr. Johnson at first ignores the issue of what he did in the 25th and 23rd Precincts and suggests dropping any reference to his law enforcement career.

In later e-mails and one long conversation, he explains that he took classes in the New York City police stations that were “civil service oriented and was constantly recruited by the police department,” but that after a knee injury he chose to work as a special officer attached to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since he “carried a gun and had a badge, and all my paraphernalia had the logo of the N.Y.P.D.,” Mr. Johnson says, he was “under the impression it was a detachment of the N.Y.P.D.” His work at the 25th and 23rd Precincts, he says finally, was for community services and the Police Athletic League. “I had no intention of misleading anyone,” he says.

He also writes, petulantly, that it was his belief that this story was to be about his return to a place he first loved at 19. (Nineteen? Not 18 or 22?)
Moral: Do not tell tall tales that a reporter can check on without even dialing long distance.

Meanwhile, the New York Times Book Review praised Johnson's latest Walt Longmire mystery, The Dark Horse. The man can, after all, tell a good story.

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