Last month global headlines announced a tribe from Papua New Guinea would be suing literary magazine The New Yorker for ten million dollars.
Daniel Wemp, the central protagonist of an article “Vengence is Ours” by Pulitzer prize winning science author Jared Diamond, filed a two page complaint in New York’s Supreme Court on April 20 with the support of American media ethics project stinkyjournalism.org.
Wemp and company say Diamond falsely accused him and fellow tribesman Isum Mandigo of “serious criminal activity” and “murder”.
Headed by Rhonda Roland Shearer, Stinky Journalism critically analysed and investigated Diamond’s article and the New Yorker’s fact-checking process, interviewing anthropologists, Papuans from the area in question and a linguist.
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Stinky Journalism published a 40, 000 word study of Diamond’s article, concluding the best selling author had invented quotes, misrepresented and misconstrued stories told by Wemp.
I, personally, was horrified. Jared Diamond is an author I had a lot of respect for, you might even say that if I had a science writer hero it would be him. His books Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel have shaped the way I think about the world.
That he would fabricate a story and abuse his relationships with his source to such a degree is a genuinely unsettling thought, and one that media the world over have clearly avoided, with little coverage following up the original accounts of the court order.
Anthropologist Pauline Wiessner of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, a leading expert on tribal warfare in PNG, thinks Diamond was naïve if he accepted Wemp’s stories at face value, because young men in PNG often exaggerate their tribal warfare exploits or make them up entirely. “I could have told him immediately that it was a tall tale, an embellished story. I hear lots of them but don’t publish them because they are not true.”
Having research background on the subject of conflict in Papua and Papua New Guinea myself, I have to admit that it is most likely the truth lies somewhere between. Young men are prone to exaggeration, but journalists looking for a story are also open to suggestion.
Oral history is always blurry and difficult to adapt to the concrete standards of modern journalism. It is more difficult when you’re crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries that lose the “grain of salt disclaimer”.
When Diamond interviewed Wemp a decade had passed. Reality had time to morph into mythology. Wemp’s recall was never going to be exact. In the same vein without audio or video recording Diamond’s notes are similarly questionable.
If Stinky Journalism are right then at the very least Diamond was not careful enough in backing up what Wemp had to say, he didn’t seek alternative sources, and potentially he didn’t do any of his own fact checking.
For a journalist that’s not a good sign, for Pulitzer Prize winning author it’s a nightmare.