Erik Wemple: When a New Yorker Story Wins a National Magazine Award and Then Collapses

From an Erik Wemple column in the Washington Post headlined “The New Yorker publishes editor’s note invalidating award-winning feature on Japan”:

An award-winning 2018 New Yorker story now has a whopper of an editor’s note atop it. In “A Theory of Relativity,” published in April 2018, staff writer Elif Batuman profiled a Japanese company called Family Romance, which supplies actors who sub in for missing family members. Need to convince your parents that you have a girlfriend? Need to convince your girlfriend that you have parents? Family Romance can help. The story won a National Magazine Award for feature writing from the American Society of Magazine Editors in March 2019. And on Sunday night, it collapsed.

The editor’s note reports that three pivotal people in the story — Yūichi Ishii, founder of the company, and two alleged clients, Reiko Shimada and Kazushige Nishida — “made false biographical claims to Batuman and to a fact checker.” The findings “contradict fundamental aspects of these individuals’ stories, and broadly undermine the credibility of what they told us,” reads the editor’s note. Not enough to retract the story, however: “We remain confident about the value of ‘A Theory of Relativity’ as an exploration of ideas of family in Japan and more widely.”. . .

The story’s lede focuses on Kazushige Nishida, a salaryman in his 60s suffering from loneliness after his wife’s death and a falling-out with his daughter. Those were the triggers for his paying Family Romance to furnish a substitute wife and daughter to spend time with him. They provide comfort and advice, prompting Nishida to reestablish contact with his daughter. The bummer is that the New Yorker later discovered that Nishida is married, as opposed to being a “lonely widower,” per the editor’s note.

Farther along in the story, Shimada — identified in the original story only as “Reiko” — claims to be a young single mother to a daughter, Mana, whose father she divorced shortly after the child was born. In her interview with Batuman, Shimada tells a heartbreaking tale of how Mana was bullied and spent three months out of school. She says she sought out Family Romance in search of a stand-in father. It worked: The replacement “father” took an interest in Mana, who thrived and spread joy to Shimada as well.

So far, so bizarre. The narrative, however, takes another turn when Batuman and her translator are chatting with Shimada. It turns out that the stand-in was planning to show up at the interview. When that person arrived, it wasn’t some random actor hired by Family Romance; it was the founder of Family Romance, Ishii. Batuman writes:

What was happening here? Batuman poked at that very issue, asking Shimada if she planned to tell her daughter that her father isn’t real. “No, I can never tell her,” said Shimada. “Sometimes I wish Inaba-san would marry me.”

But according to the editor’s note, Shimada is married in real life — to Ishii. When confronted about the arrangement by the New Yorker, Ishii confirmed that he supported Shimada and her family, “but did not give a clear answer as to whether they are married.” Shimada said that she was an “ongoing” client of Family Romance.

In short, the New Yorker found that the people who provided most of the narrative juice in the story — Ishii, Nishida and Shimada — were unreliable. The role players apparently found role-playing a bit too irresistible. “Once we learned of evidence that Yūichi Ishii had made misrepresentations about his business to the Japanese press, we initiated a thorough investigation, which was made more complex by Japanese privacy laws,” notes a New Yorker spokesperson. “Based on our findings, we no longer have confidence in what Ishii, Kazushige Nishida, or Reiko Shimada told us. The editors’ note that is appended to the story is now an integral part of the article; we want readers to have this information as they read it.”

But there is no article anymore. It tells stories of forlorn and desperate people who, it turns out, aren’t so forlorn and desperate. They’re just unreliable and mendacious. It’s for situations like this that journalism invented the retraction — a clear signal to readers that the people who produced a piece of work can no longer stand behind it. Leaving “A Theory of Relativity” intact with a massive editor’s note at the top won’t cut it.

That’s especially true when that editor’s note states, “We remain confident about the value of ‘A Theory of Relativity’ as an exploration of ideas of family in Japan and more widely.” Wrong: The story is an exploration, rather, of the shortcomings of fact-checking. This discipline — in which the New Yorker has long represented the industry standard — works best when it seeks to verify public facts, stuff that is documented somewhere or witnessed by many people. Nailing down events in people’s private lives, on the other hand, is a dicier proposition. In that realm, fact-checkers don’t so much confirm what actually happened as what one or two people say happened.

The New Yorker deserves credit for undertaking an investigation and publishing its results, but it didn’t follow those results to their logical conclusion. Nor does it appear that the magazine will lose its feature-writing award. Sidney Holt, executive director of the ASME, said in a statement: “ASME has full confidence in the integrity of the writer and the editors of ‘A Theory of Relativity.’ As chief administrator of the National Magazine Awards, I do not anticipate that the problems revealed by the New Yorker’s own investigation into the reporting of ‘A Theory of Relativity’ will lead to reconsideration of the 2019 award for Feature Writing. Indeed, at no time in the 55-year history of the National Magazine Awards has ASME rescinded an award. The ASME Board of Directors will discuss the matter at its next regularly scheduled meeting, on January 28, 2021.”

Okay, but the story’s not true, which would appear to be an important criterion for awards consideration. Just because ASME hasn’t rescinded an award doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. . . .

Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.

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