Monday, May 5, 2008

Being a bad influence on young journalists

(Photo--Brooke Williams)
The players: The Emilys, Melissa, Malcolm and yours truly.

The story: How I met Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink." Recently, he came to speak at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. You can find out more about him in a profile written by Chris Wilson for the Washingtonian.

There's some important background for this story. Gladwell semi-recently spoke at The Moth, a stage in New York where people go to tell true stories and tall tales. His story was one that followed his profession--specifically his first stab at journalism at the Washington Post.

It centers around a contest that he and a friend came up with to see how many times they could get the phrase "raises new and troubling questions" into the newspaper. When they found that it was much too easy to get that phrase printed, they held a championship round with the phrase "perverse and often baffling," which Gladwell supposedly got published in a story about gastroenterologists.

Hilarious. To a journalist, anyway.

You can find the uncensored version streamed here. It's about 15 minutes long.

Incidentally, I had happened to write a story about a new personality test being implemented at JBU that contained that exact phrase.

One of my sources said that a vast majority of employees are disengaged from their jobs...a statistic which I said "raises new and troubling questions about the demeanor of the American worker."

Because of this occurrence, and thanks to Emily Gilbert's suggestion, we decided to go hear Gladwell speak and hopefully get my story signed.

He gave a very nice talk about his concept of the "mavens," his term for the people who inform trends and massive change. After the talk and a brief Q&A session, a couple of security guards closed in on him, and the trio disappeared through a door behind the stage.

And our chance disappeared with them. Luckily, we anticipated this.

We acted quickly and slithered through the crowd amidst dirty looks and scoffs and popped through the door. We found ourselves in a storage hall of sorts and spotted Gladwell at the end of the corridor.

"Mr. Gladwell!"
The security guards stop and wave us away with a two-finger salute.
"Can we not--?"
Another wave.
But by this time, their group had stopped, and Gladwell turned to see what was going on.
"Oh hi," he says. "Are you not coming to the reception?"
"Hi." We shake hands, and I tell him that I'm not sure if we can make it.

I explain that I heard the story he told at The Moth, and that I had gotten it into our student newspaper. He spotted the phrase immediately (I had brought a copy of the newspaper immediately) and thought it was hilarious. He graciously signed it, saying that he was glad he was negatively influencing young journalists.

Some other audience members came in after us and, as we were leaving, the security guards shooed them away, effectively making us the only people that got to see Malcolm that evening.


Come to find out, the story Gladwell told at the Moth fell into the category of "tall tales."

This is not necessarily a problem because it is a well known fact that stories at the Moth are not all entirely true, but finding out that most of the story is fabricated does detract from the humor.

Nevertheless, it does appear that at least part of the story was rooted in truth, since the phrase "perverse and often baffling" does appear in a story written for the Washington Post on Sept. 2, 1991 about traffic trends.

While the veracity and distribution of this excerpt may have been handled poorly by Gladwell and others, it's still a funny story. And a story is what it is.

For the full story about the extent of the tale's tallness, see Jack Shafer's article "The Fibbing Point" at

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