I speared some monkeys in my time too, you know

February 8th, 2007 → 12:24 pm @ // 9 Comments

Spring 2001: what an innocent time. First-wave Internet companies were still chugging along. Alex Kuczynski was writing about the media and not about her ass-lifts and lip-jobs. And self-styled gonzo journalists were spearing monkeys off an island in Florida.

Or so they (he, actually — Jay Forman) claimed. Forman’s “monkeyfishing” piece was the third of Forman’s “Vice” pieces for Slate. Close readers smelled bullshit right off the bat, but it wasn’t until Forman’s monkeyfishing column that Slate had a full-blown Stephen Glass-esque fiasco on its hands. It only took a couple of days for the media feeding frenzy to begin, and, Slate’s protestations to the contrary, it soon became abundantly clear that no such thing as monkeyfishing had ever taken place.

As media reporter for the sadly defunct Inside.com, a new-media site started by two old-media stalwarts (Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn) that was dedicated to covering old media, I was a big part of that feeding frenzy. Inside was a great site and a great place to work; now, there’s not even a placeholder website out there that acknowledges it once existed.

And so, sadly, there’s no record of my contribution to the monkeyfishing clusterfuck. And when, earlier this week, Forman finally admitted he made the whole thing up, I didn’t even get a cursory pat on the back from Slate’s Jack Shafer. “In 2001, Jay Forman wrote an article about “monkeyfishing” that I edited and published in Slate,” Shafer wrote in this week’s Slate piece. “Almost immediately, bloggers, the Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto, and the New York Times ($) gouged huge holes in the piece.”

I don’t know if I counted as a “blogger” at the time — in fact, “blogging” (as opposed to keeping an online diary) was a relatively new concept — but dammit I was poking holes, too! Just check out Taranto’s WSJ.com coverage — I’m all over that like stink on shit. In fact, if I don’t say so myself, I was on the cutting edge of debunking Forman’s “I used a homemade silencer to shoot up a New Orleans house” piece. Here’s a surviving snippet from my piece: “On the subject of whether Forman could have manufactured a silencer (so he could shoot cocktail onions out of a bag in his living room, natch), Kinsley writes that Slate “described the device to the director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum, Jack Atwater, who said that such a device could work.” (This is technically true; Atwater says he told a Slate editor that such a device could work. But, he adds: “When you fire a supersonic round, you hear a crack, like a bullwhip. So dampening down the noise of the round isn’t going to do a lot of good. It would be a hell of a noise. This sounds to me implausible, but not impossible.”)” (See: my love of parenthetical clauses goes back a long ways.)

I did manage to track down a wrap-up piece I wrote* at the time. I present it here, in it’s entirety. And Jack, next time, show me some love.
Slate’s Defense of ‘Monkeyfishing’ — One Only a Lawyer Could Love
Monday, June 25, 2001

Slate editor Michael Kinsley was trained as a lawyer and built his lofty journalistic reputation through Boiesian cross-examinations of poorly thought-out logic, eviscerating them with his parsing intellect. But his exquisitely tuned bullshit meter seems a bit off when he’s on the defensive. Take, for example, his increasing sophistry in defense of Slate’s piece on “monkeyfishing,” which, after weeks of attack, has finally, definitively been shown to be a classic tall tale in an article today in The New York Times. “Slate … now acknowledges that it published falsehoods and we apologize to our readers,” Kinsley wrote on Monday after The New York Times got a supposed participant in the fated monkeyfishing excursion to admit it never happened; prior to this, Kinsley had insisted that the burden of proof lay at the hands of the accusers. But instead of admitting he’d screwed up and leaving it at that, Kinsley is taking one last stand on behalf of author Jay Forman. “Despite suggestions by others that the entire episode was fiction, this excursion did take place,” Kinsley writes. “In fact the Times story, by Alex Kuczynski, quotes the fisherman who took Forman and his friend on the trip.” Reaching Clintonian levels of obfuscation, he continues: “Contrary to allegations that no such practice ever existed, Kuczynski also confirms that monkeyfishing occurred on other occasions before the one Forman describes. She quotes the fisherman saying he had gone on similar excursions once or ‘maybe twice.’ ”

What manifestly happened, if you read Kuczynski’s piece, is that one or more likely drunken expeditions did occur in which fishermen played at tossing lines in the direction of an island but that said island was so well protected that the likelihood of success was as high as, say, standing on Fifth Avenue and spearing a sightseer on the top of the Empire State Building. Kinsley on Slate and in response to questions from Inside, nonetheless is insisting something called “monkeyfishing” took place; this, despite the quoted opinions to the contrary of scientists, wildlife officials, area journalists and longtime fisherman. (The assorted experts punch holes in virtually every aspect of the tale, ranging from whether its possible to bait a fishing line with an apple to whether monkeys would ever approach humans.) But Kinsley has his position and he’s sticking to it: if there was a fisherman and he on at least one occasion maintains that he threw a line in the direction of some monkeys, whether or not said monkeys took the bait, and irrespective of whether it was even theoretically possible to fish thusly, “monkeyfishing” therefore exists. All depends on what you think the meaning of “is” is.

This may all be moot, of course. Asked about whether author Forman would still be welcome to contribute his tales of unusual elevation, Kinsley replied: “Of course he will not be writing for Slate.” — Seth Mnookin

* Re-reading this piece, I suspect it went through some heavy Hirschorn edits. He got an advanced degree in literature; I didn’t. I’m pretty sure I’ve never “manifestly happens” anything…


Post Categories: Media reporting & Slate

9 Comments → “I speared some monkeys in my time too, you know”


  1. SexMutombo

    10 years ago

    More NY Times Sports Section rumor mongering with 0 actual evidence. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/07/sports/ncaafootball/07illinois.html

    Reply

  2. lonborgski

    10 years ago

    Isn’t it “Anderson”?!

    So, you write for Vanity Fair because you wrote for Andersen at “Inside” and he graduated from Harvard too and co-founded “Spy” with Graydon Carter. Guess New York’s almost as small a town as Boston. Yeah, you can write too, but probably not as well as Hirschorn.

    Nope, it’s definitely Andersen. I write for VF because they bought an excerpt of my first book. I wrote for Inside because Brill’s Content, where I worked at the time, bought Inside Media when the Internet bubble burst in early ’01. (And Steve Brill went to Yale, so that didn’t help me any.) Steve hired me away from the Forward. I got that job because I went to Harvard. And because I’m Jewish. We control the media, you know.

    — Seth

    Reply

  3. tinisoli

    10 years ago

    Seth,

    When can we talk about Bronson’s hair?

    Forget the music career, Saturn Balls. You need to get into lion taming.

    Reply

  4. Jack

    10 years ago

    Spring training can’t start soon enough.

    Reply

  5. lonborgski

    10 years ago

    Kurt Andersen’s Jewish? Woah! Does Christopher Buckley know?

    Reply

  6. Jack

    10 years ago

    Seth is getting lazy. Come on buddy, Murray must have written something stupid in the past 4 days.

    Reply

  7. jose melendez

    10 years ago

    You know what really pisses Jose off about the whole Stephen Glass fiasco? Jose was a regular New Republic reader at the time and read about 10 other magazines too (he was in college) Since he tends to forget who wrote what in what magazine, he has no idea if anything he read in that entire period was actually true.

    Did Bil Clinton win a second term? Jose has no idea.

    Reply

  8. Jack

    10 years ago

    You know what Jack loves about Jose? Jack loves Jose’s use of the third person.

    You know what annoys Jack? Seth’s inability to entertain Jack with a daily post.

    Reply

  9. amazing_grace

    10 years ago

    Was that spearing monkeys or spanking monkeys?

    Reply

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