Sunday, March 16, 2008

SOUND OFF: A GREAT DEAL MORE THAN JUST THE FACTS

The author of a memoir about growing up during the Holocaust and surviving, partly by living with wolves, has admitted that her story was a hoax.

One of the people who helped bring the hoax to light was the book's American publisher. Even before the memoir was published, the publisher had been told by experts that factual aspects of the story were troubling, but she published it anyway. Only after the author won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against her -- for, among other things, not promoting the book aggressively enough -- did the publisher begin working to prove the memoir a hoax. When the author finally came clean, the publisher claimed vindication. (You can read David Mehegan's piece about this in The Boston Globe by clicking here.)

Was it right for the publisher to go after the author's veracity after the lawsuit, even though she had ignored professional advice when she published the book in the first place? Does it matter that she started her efforts only after the author sued her and won?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

14 comments:

M. Lawrence said...

I'm having trouble locating even one ethical person in this entire debacle. The author is a fraud. (It's not reality - it's MY reality!") The real wolfpack turns out to be her lawyers. The media that ran away with this story in heavy-breathing headlines are just as guilty, particularly the "deaf, dumb, and blind" French press that attacked the very historians who were trying to debunk the story with facts. And Daniel herself is a special breed of weasel who was perfectly willing to profit from all these lies but now admits that she ignored the absurdities of the story in her eagerness to publish it. How can anyone feel sympathy for any of them?
One can only imagine the syrupy treacle Disney would have made of this if it hadn't been exposed, and the further diminishing of an already credulous and urban legend prone public.
The whole thing reeks.
A plague on ALL their houses!

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, reading this whole thing, it sounds to me like the publisher did the right thing at the right time. The novelist was the lowest of the low and deserved to be found out and made to suffer financially. Wasn't there enough suffering by the Jews without someone like the author taking advantage by writing a hoax? Good for the publisher for finally bringing justice in this case. The timing of her lawsuit brings to mind nothing of doing the wrong ethical thing.

Charlie Seng

Brian Hurley said...

Any decent book contract will include a clause where the author promises that all of the material she turns in for publication is true and not copyrighted by anyone else. It would almost be a breach of trust for the editor to question the author's work after she has signed the contract. Besides, a book publisher is not a fact-checker in the same way that newspapers are. (Can you imagine how people like Ann Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza would ever get published if their editors had to verify everything they said?) So there has to be some leniency for the editor who falls prey to a lying author.

Once this case became a legal battle, the lines were drawn and both sides went for each other's throats. I have a hard time blaming the publisher for anything substantial. Welcome to the ugly side of book publishing! Sometimes it takes a reprehensible author to point it out.

Carroll Straus said...

OK I'm going to chime in here. First off there is a GREAT DEAL more to this story than the short version showcased here. The publisher did her job-- she publicized the book, in good faith as far as I can tell. But even in the editing-- a different beast-- it was much more complex than this post suggests.

Is it ethical for a defendant to seek to discredit an accuser? Of course it is. That is what a defendant in any lawsuit must do. Even a lawyer, sued by a client, can use confidential information to defend him/herself. Information he would otherwise be ethically bound to protect "at every peril to himself." (Those ethics are spelled out in the "canons".)

But as i say-- there is MUCH more to this story. Frankly i can't even keep it all straight in my mind, but it reeks of corruption-- no matter how far-fetched the story, the destruction of the publisher in no way passes the "smell test." (And it also reeks of shooting the messenger.) and as for who is "worse" than whom, did not Jesus himself say "He who is without sin shall case the first stone?" among otyehr thifs havig to do with planks and specks??? Please apre me the self righteous condemnation(s). Who was harmed, anyway? Really???

For the long version... see
http://bestsellerthebook.blogspot.com/

Full disclosure-- I recently exchanged a few brief emails with Jane Daniel!

Carroll Straus, Esq.
Orange County, CA

M. Lawrence said...

"Who was harmed?"?? If blogger Straus has to ask the question, he wouldn't understand the answer. This isn't about personal expedience and who can get away with what; this column is about ethics. If publisher Daniel had done the ethical thing from the beginning, given the warnings that were made and the doubts she had, she wouldn't be fighting for her financial survival now. She's helping to expose this fraud of an author now because it's in her best interests now. I have no problem with that - just don't try to paint her as the innocent victim.

Executive Studio said...

There isn't an ethical player in this drama. The author was deceptive in putting forth a false story as true (And how did she manage to win a multi-million dollar law suit? Very few books break through to the big time.). The publisher failed to act on information she had prior to publication.

What strikes me is the attitude that "if we don't get caught, anything is OK." The author apparently felt entitled to make lots of money off a false memoir (and to sue the publisher for not hyping it aggressively enough); the publisher felt it was OK to put the book into the marketplace even though it was dangerously close to failing the "smell test."

Unfortunately, all of the kerfuffle about this has likely boosted sales for the book.

Eric McNulty
Brookline, MA USA

Kathleen Valentine said...

Since I have been blogging about this case for some time now I am far from impartial but what I want to point out (and others have made this point) is that, while the publisher did receive 2 warnings that the book might be a fraud, she also received many, many shows of support including enthusiastic support from Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel. She had to make a decision and she discounted two "nays" in favor of a great many more "yeas".

The question I would ask, ethically speaking, is, given the very same set of circumstances, if the story HAD been true, should the publisher have refused to publish it? If the author said "I was abducted by aliens" instead of "I lived with wolves" should a publisher refuse to publish it?

If we start holding publishers accountable for vetting the truth of the books they publish what then will happen to books that reveal truths nobody wants to hear about --- government cover-ups, conspiracy theories, tales of injustice. When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin" the first couple of publishers she took it to told her it was ludicrous and unbelievable. Where do we draw the line on books about subjects that many would say were false?

Kathleen Valentine said...

One more thing I would like to add, Mr. Seglin asks, "Was it right for the publisher to go after the author's veracity after the lawsuit, even though she had ignored professional advice when she published the book in the first place?"

When the publisher began her blog in August of 2007 she was simply telling her side of the story. She was not attempting to discredit the author whose work she had published. However, as she worked on that blog certain interesting questions came to light. In fact I was the one who noticed the name Monique De Wael/Misha Defonseca gave as her mother's name (Donvill) and questioned if it was a Jewish name. When Sharon Sergeant read the blog and obtained copies of book in five different languages she created a chart of discrepancies between the American and European versions and it was only then that Jane Daniel began investigating whether Misha was actually Jewish --- this was over 11 years since she had originally published the book!

You have to bear in mind that all the revelations that led to Le Soir's investigation resulting in Defonseca's confession happened between December 2007 and February 27, 2008! NOBODY had been able to uncover those bits of information until then, despite what all the alleged investigative journalists (David Mehegan and Blake Eskin) claim.

AncestralManor said...

I am the researcher who uncovered this fraud. This ethics discussion presumes that all the facts are out there. That is not the case.

This fraud hasn't gotten the column space it deserves yet. Editors and reporters were immediately distracted by the flash-in-the-pan Seltzer literary hoax.

The magazine and newspaper industry is being touted as fact checkers compared to the book publishing business.

The Jewish community has to deal with Holocaust deniers crowing about the Defonseca fraud, and worry about real survivor stories being subjected to ridicule.

Many Europeans, where this book has been a best seller for more than a decade and the film has had 500,000 viewers since it's January release, love the story whether it's true or not and defend Defonseca's "my reality" confession.

The French film producer Vera Belmont was herself a Jewish hidden child. The French press reports that Belmont believed in the spirit of the story, but did remove what she considered exaggerations, despite Misha literally howling and rolling on the ground in defense of "her reality."

There are also people who were personally victimized by Defonseca all along the way who are still processing the basic persona fraud revelation. Many have contacted me.

In the meantime, I suggest that everybody who has opinions do a little more critical thinking starting with asking more questions.

Will the press actually tell the whole story?

I will present an overview of my findings at the Massachusetts Genealogical Council seminar in April. www.massgencouncil.org

This case is like one of those giant jigsaw puzzles with a thousand pieces. You can't get to the heart of it, until you get all the straight edges in place and frame the problems.

I couldn't have solved the Holocaust hidden child fraud without framing the big issues around the problem.

Hint: The most basic part of the frame is why this fraud lasted so long -

In 1997 the original US publisher Mt Ivy published "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years" where Defonseca claimed that her hidden child identity was Monique DeWael, and included identifiable pictures of what actually turns out to be Defonseca's real identity.

A few months later in 1997, the French publisher Laffont published "Survivre avec Loups" (Surviving with Wolves), where the Defonseca hidden child identity was changed to Monique Valle, the identifying pictures are gone and the story is rearranged.

What is wrong with this picture?

Sharon Sergeant
Waltham, MA

Anonymous said...

Regarding the publisher who outed the Holocaust author who reportedly survived by living with wolves, to answer your question I'd have to know what their contract provided and what a publisher's duties are in general.

Do publishers have to verify the accuracy of what they publish? Can they publish a book even though they doubt its accuracy?

For example, Mrs' Gore's little boy, Allen, wrote a book titled "An Inconvenient Truth" that anyone with half a brain would know was nothing more tham amusing fiction. Yet it's a best seller and many people not only think it's fact, but want to change governmental policy based upon some of its fantisies.

Would the publisher be liable if, based on the book and publicity surrounding it, the United States adopts a carbon "cap and trade" policy that destroys what little remaining manufacturing and power generating capability we have?

Or is a publisher just a combination printer and salesman?

Take the intelligent, witty, blonde, mini-skirted goddess, Ann Coulter, whom I worship and hope to marry some day. She writes some of the best political satire I've read, yet many people take her seriously.

For example, when she wrote that she liked FDR because he didn't seek "consensus" from Germany and France before invading Normandy on June 6, 1944, I found it to be hilarious. Who in their right minds would have thought the French would ever have agreed? Up to that point in time there were more French policemen than German soldeirs in "occupied" Paris.

So I guess it boils down to what a publisher's contractual duties are. Does Random House have an obligation to verify the accuracy of Hillary's new book project that has the working title "It Takes a Fuher?"

Burl Estes
Mission Viejo, CA

Kathleen Valentine said...

"I'd have to know what their contract provided and what a publisher's duties are in general."

When a publisher signs an author there is a contract that they both sign. They are both held to the terms of the contract. The standard boilerplate contract for a memoir includes language that the author warrants that everything written in their book is true and autobiographical. That is the extent of the publisher's responsibility in vetting the truth. Misha's contract is posted on the publisher's blog at www.BESTSELLERtheBook.blogspot.com.

How much fact checking do you suppose Whitley Schreiber's publisher is held accountable for?

Anonymous said...

I was stopped short about two-thirds into your column in the Columbus Dispatch this Sunday (16 March). You advised the designer to adhere to his principles ”unless his life depends on the cash he’s receiving…” That makes for some pretty convenient principles. So if I’m starving it’s OK to steal? If stealing is OK, what next? I think this is where we bring out the term slippery slope. Your designer has a moral obligation to tell his employer that he thinks the invention will not work and that if the device is a perpetual motion machine, the inventor should go back and re-read the Third Law of Thermodynamics. If the employer still wants to push on, your designer needs to either give him his best effort or distance himself as far as possible. His choice lies between being labeled a well fed opportunist or a starving realist. You should also have reminded him that in working for his employer he is putting his reputation on the line. “A good name is better than riches,” Cervantes.

RGH

PS I’d be surprised if you didn’t receive more emails that your mailbox can handle.

Ronald G. Heiber, DDS, MS
Lancaster, OH

Anonymous said...

On the publisher who issued the book despite strong evidence of factual problems, she should not have published something that's touted as factual until she's investigated things.
The true stature of a man is not how he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but how he stands in times of challenge and controversy. -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jim Thomson

Anonymous said...

The American publisher of the fake memoir was wrong if she published the memoir knowing that is was fake. But that some experts told her “that factual aspects of the story were troubling” does not by itself mean she acted badly in publishing; the publisher may have concluded in good faith that the work was not fake.

a. I don’t see anything wrong about the publisher subsequently going “after the author’s veracity” especially after she was sued by the author.

b. There may be some legal issue if the author could prove that the publisher knew that the work was a fake and published it anyway – but I doubt even that would stop the publisher from legally going against the author. It might make the publisher liable to others though (eg a class action by people who bought the fake book).

Luis Villalobos
Newport Beach CA

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