Integrating Expert Knowledge and Public Records for Fact Verification

Recently, the New Republic, Associated Press and other outlets reported on the controversy surrounding Angel at the Fence, a soon-to-be-published memoir by Herman Rosenblat. As told by Rosenblat, he met his wife while he was a teenager being held in a concentration camp where she would sneak apples and bread to him at the camp fence. Rosenblat's account, which has been defended by his publisher, is being questioned by scholars who claim that the layout of the camp in which Rosenblat was held would have made it virtually impossible for anyone to get as close to the fence as Rosenblat claims his future wife did. See this New Republic article for the full story. There is, of course, a long line of literary and media fakers. The New York Times compiled a list of several notable literary and television personalities that built their fame based on embellished stories or complete lies over the past 150 years. Despite the ready availability of public records that could help publishers perform simple fact checks on the manuscripts and personalities they handle, few do - making literary and media deception fairly simple to pull off.

In the case of Angel at the Fence, scholars with intimate knowledge of the camp in which Rosenblat was held have used maps (which are a public record) to raise questions about the veracity of Rosenblat's account.

Likewise, in these instances cited by the Times, the manner in which the fabrications came to light illustrates the insight that combining expert knowledge with a good foundation in the analysis of public records can provide.

  • The 1996 award-winning memoir Fragments by Binjamin Wilkomirski described his childhood experience as an orphan in a Nazi concentration camp, but the publication ceased circulation after a Swiss historian uncovered that the true author, Bruno Doessekker, had spent World War II comfortably in Switzerland.
  • James Frey's successful 2005 memoir A Million Little Pieces embellished details of his drug and alcohol rehabilitation and the time following his release from the Hazeldine rehab center. Frey's exaggerations were made public after he was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club. The web site The Smoking Gun used public records to determine that, rather than spending three months in jail as he claimed, Frey spent only a few hours. Rehab experts and experts familiar with the Hazeldine program also raised questions about Frey's account of the Hazeldine program. Frey later apologized.
  • In 2007, Emily Davies contracted a memoir tentatively entitled How to Wear Black: Adventures on Fashion's Front-line about her experience as a former fashion writer. However, the book was canceled when Women's Wear Daily pointed out various fabrications and plagiarism.
  • Until 2008, Robert Irvine was a chef and star of the Food Network television show Dinner: Impossible, when he was caught for lying about his credentials. While Irvine was said to be talented, his claims of cooking for presidents, owning a castle in Scotland and creating the wedding cake for Prince Charles and Lady Diana all proved to be falsified. After these contradictions were revealed, he was temporarily fired from the television show; however, the Food Network brought him back to film new episodes for the 2009 season.