(8/18/2018 Update: Literally thousands of people are finding this 12-year-old blog post thanks to Ira Glass and This American Life. Therefore, I need to update this post. If I’d heard the broadcast for the first time today, I’d probably not react to it as brutally. I’d probably post a link on Facebook and say something to the effect of “fake news” before moving on. I certainly harbor no ill feelings toward Zora. I do, however, believe more strongly than ever that it’s the job of professional journalists to seek out and report the facts of any given story. I feel McEvers failed to do that in this instance. If you’re still reading, please read all the way through and then the comments, where one of Zora’s associates has posted. Of course, I responded. Thanks!)
(8/23/2018 Update: Because some people can’t be bothered to read all the comments, they can’t read, AND they expect me to be responsible for updating a 12-year-old blog post about a 17-year-old story with information didn’t happen until 2 years ago…this is why we can’t have nice things. Comments CLOSED.)
On Sunday afternoon, I was listening to KCRW, our local NPR channel, as I was driving to my Frenchman’s house. I was drawn into a story being told by journalist Kelly McEvers about an “international private investigator, a bounty hunter and bail bonds enforcer” named “Zora”, who had dreams since adolescence about being a superhero and made mega-lists of “things to master” by certain ages.
Zora claims that, by 21 years of age, she had finished her coursework for her Ph.D. in Geopolitics. She also claims that she had a list of skills to master by age 23:
helicopter and airplane flying
mountain emergency medicine
Kelly McEvers then says the following of Zora by age 23: “And the most incredible thing about all of this is that Zora accomplished nearly every item on the list.”
Zora’s story doesn’t add up — not in minutes and years, and certainly not in finances. Zora claims her father is a professor at University of Minnesota. It’s possible if her father is a professor that she could have gotten her education for free, but U of M does not offer a Ph.D. in Geopolitics. How then could she afford, even with grants, her entire education in addition to helicopter lessons and archery equipment? Was her family rich? She doesn’t say, but it’s not likely if her father is a prof. These are very expensive sports. Also, my Frenchman is a Ph.D. from Princeton. He tells me stories of geniuses who finished their Ph.D. in three years. BUT…these geniuses are only good at maybe one other thing, not twenty.
Yet, McEvers never questions this. She lets Zora tell us a story — a fun story, one we wish were true — that is just flatly unbelievable, yet lets it lay as if it were God’s truth. It would be one thing if McEvers winked even briefly at the audience, letting us know that she knows it’s all a bit too much. But instead, she gives Zora wide berth to weave multiple unlikelihoods without anything but a gee-golly narration. (Zora missed her calling as a fiction writer, truth be told. But if she’s remotely as strong as McEvers claims she is, and she reads this, she might be inclined to hunt me down and kick my ass.)
To be fair, maybe McEvers took some liberties with how she pinned together a much-tamer story told by a somewhat adventurous person. Still, you’d think that she could, um, add.
I’m not sure why this bothered me so much this weekend. Maybe because this kind of “storytelling” in regular life causes too much heartache and hurt. Or maybe because journalism is already so problematic. The media is suffering so badly from credibility these days. Why exacerbate it, even for entertainment’s sake? Lord knows, we’ve got plenty of entertainment these days from other sources.
It turns out that McEvers story is dated February 23, 2001. Less than seven months before 9/11. She created a great many of these audio stories for NPR since then, and for subjects about the Middle East that I know far less about. As a diehard NPR listener, I wonder what I’ve really been hearing. And how much of it I can rely on…