By Benjamin Mann
A New York Times writer is facing allegations that he embellished or fabricated the story of a college classmate who turned from a practicing Catholic to a non-religious abortionist.
“The column you are questioning was written by Frank Bruni, a well respected, first class journalist, and it was written in keeping with the high editorial standards of The New York Times,” the paper’s vice president for corporate communications Eileen Murphy told CNA on April 3, when asked about factual concerns raised after its publication. The piece, she said, is “entirely authentic.”
But Murphy and the paper’s journalistic integrity office have offered no direct response to questions about whether the piece was fact-checked or otherwise verified. While Bruni insists that he cannot identify his source for privacy reasons, a fellow member of his college class – who organized its 25th anniversary reunion – says she has no memory of the person profiled.
Bruni’s March 24 column, “Rethinking His Religion,” told the story of an unnamed college classmate who “attended Catholic services every Sunday in a jacket and tie.” The openly gay columnist said he kept his distance, since he had “arrived at college determined to be honest about my sexual orientation and steer clear of people who might make that uncomfortable or worse. I figured him for one of them.”
“About two years ago, out of nowhere, he found me,” Bruni wrote. “His life, he wanted me to know, had taken interesting turns … As a doctor, he has spent a part of his time providing abortions.”
The subject of the profile – who purportedly knew the murdered late-term abortionist George Tiller – was said to have left behind religion, and changed his views on issues like abortion and homosexuality.
“He grew up in the South, in a setting so homogeneous and a family so untroubled that, he said, he had no cause to question his parents’ religious convictions … He said that college gave him cause, starting with me.” Bruni recalled how his subject “pledged a fraternity when he was still on my radar and then, when he wasn’t, quit in protest over how it had blackballed a Korean pledge candidate and a gay one.”
“After graduation he ventured to a desperately poor part of Africa to teach for a year,” Bruni wrote. There, he said, his classmate encountered a “teenage girl … dying of sepsis from a female circumcision performed with a kitchen knife,” along with other “cruelties born of the kind of bigotry that religion and false righteousness sometimes abet.”
In his 30s, Bruni’s subject “read all 11 volumes of ‘The Story of Civilization,’ then tackled Erasmus, whose mention in those books intrigued him.” A study of Church history contributed to his loss of faith. But at dinner with his children, the doctor discussed “favorite quotations from Emerson, Thoreau, Confucius, Siddhartha, Gandhi, Marcus Aurelius, Martin Luther King,” and “the New Testament, too.”
The column ended with an anecdote in which Bruni’s friend performed an abortion for a woman he had seen standing “year in and year out on a ladder, so that her head would be above other protesters’ as she shouted ‘murderer’ at him and other doctors and ‘whore’ at every woman who walked into the clinic.” A week after her abortion, according to Bruni’s unnamed source, “she was back on her ladder.”
In their online comments, some New York Times readers hailed the column as a masterpiece – calling it “inspiring,” “terrific,” “well-written,” and “thought-provoking.” A reader from New Mexico declared: “I am just in awe of Bruni’s prose. This piece is a poem.”
Others, however, called the account into question – wondering whether they were reading a work of fiction, a blend of fact and embellishment, or a set of exaggerations taken at face value by the author.
Several media outlets and observers proceeded to cast doubts on Bruni’s account of his unidentified friend after its publication. Skeptics included conservative commentator Rod Dreher (“Frank Bruni, Fabulist?”), GetReligion’s Mollie Hemingway (“Frank Bruni’s Imaginary Friend?”), and Gawker contributor John Cook (“Frank Bruni’s Too-Good-to-Be-True Abortion Tale”).
Two National Catholic Register columnists, Mark Shea and Matthew Archbold, also declared their disbelief after the column’s publication. Archbold drew from his own journalism background in declaring the column “horse hockey,” his onetime editor’s term for “a source that said exactly what the reporter needed them to say with a flourish of the poet. And who wished to remain anonymous.”
Shea compared the piece to performer Mike Daisey’s discredited “Apple Factory” monologue – which was retracted by producers of the public radio program “This American Life,” when Daisey was found to have fictionalized key details about his trip to electronics manufacturing plants in China.
“I don’t believe the New York Times,” Shea declared, saying Bruni’s “absolutely perfect narrative, tailor-made to reinforce the sensibilities of New York Times readers, sounds more like Mike Daisey.”
“Bruni’s ‘anonymous friend’ sounds completely bogus,” wrote Rod Dreher. “He is just too perfect an illustration of what a gay secular liberal would want to see from the ‘conversion’ of a conservative Catholic.” Dreher also noted that the quotations attributed to Bruni’s friend “sound like lines taken from a piece of formal op-ed writing.”
Gawker, a site not known for sympathy with religious conservatives, was perhaps hardest on Bruni. John Cook savaged the anecdote of a pro-life protester’s abortion – citing eight published instances of nearly identical stories, and calling it “a hoary old tale that pops up on the internet with such frequency that – if I didn’t know better – I’d suspect Bruni was laundering a transparently false urban myth.”
After these concerns were raised, CNA sought Bruni’s help in contacting the man profiled in “Rethinking His Religion.” The columnist explained that this was not possible.
“For reasons of safety and security, given that he has been an abortion provider and subject to protesters/protest, he didn’t/doesn’t want to be publicly identified, and spoke with me only because he trusted me not to print or in any way publicize his name, location, etc.,” Bruni wrote in an e-mail. “So I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
When told that the man’s identity would not be published or otherwise publicized, Bruni responded: “I’ll gladly forward your messages to him – in fact, I’ll do so the second after I hit ‘send’ on this – but I doubt that he’s going to trust someone he doesn’t know.”
Bruni acknowledged that several sources were now seeking to verify his college classmate’s story.
“I know and have no reason whatsoever to distrust him,” the columnist told CNA, explaining that others’ interest in verifying the account was “less important to me than his safety, his comfort and my keeping my word to him. I’m truly sorry if that frustrates you. Not my intent.”
CNA also contacted the office of the New York Times Public Editor, which describes itself as dealing “specifically with issues of journalistic integrity at The New York Times.”
But Joseph Burgess, an assistant to Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, said his office could not answer questions about the publication of Bruni’s column – including questions as to whether the source had been independently verified, or established as credible, by someone other than the columnist himself.
“Since this is a media request and your questions seem to indicate you are looking for specific answers relating to practices in the editorial pages, we’re not in a position to speak on behalf of the Times since we operate outside the newsroom,” Burgess stated in an e-mail. He suggested contacting Eileen Murphy, the paper’s vice president for corporate communications.
While Murphy responded to CNA’s inquiry, she did not give a direct answer to questions about whether Bruni’s column had been fact-checked.
Instead, she stated that the piece had been “written in keeping with the high editorial standards of the New York Times,” and was “entirely authentic.”
On the basis of these responses from Burgess and Murphy, it remains unknown whether anyone else at the New York Times ever independently checked Bruni’s source or the details of the story.
One reader who was left particularly puzzled by the column is Dawn Peters, a member of Frank Bruni’s 1986 graduating class at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
An organizer of the class’ 25th reunion in 2011, Peters is an administrator of the “UNC Class of 1986” Facebook page. She read her old classmate’s column in the New York Times, but could not recall anyone matching Bruni’s distinctive description.
“I have no clue who that person is,” Peters told CNA on April 3. “I was wondering, too.”
“I know a lot of my class, but I didn’t know who that was,” Peters said, when asked if she could offer any assistance locating Bruni’s source.