A curious case is fast-escalating in the US: it involves a $10 million defamation lawsuit, two Papua New Guineans who feel they have been inaccurately portrayed, the New Yorker magazine, the research site StinkyJournalism.org… and Jared Diamond, the well-known UCLA professor and author.
A summary of major events, in brief:
- In April 2008, Jared Diamond [linguist, molecular physiologist, bio-geographer] publishes an article in the New Yorker entitled ‘Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?’
- The article, about blood feuds in Papua New Guinea, featured the story of Daniel Wemp and an account of how he spent three years pursuing revenge for his uncle’s death. Allegedly, the feud resulted in six battles and the deaths of 300 pigs.
- Diamond reports that Henep Isum Mandingo, the man Daniel Wemp was alleged to hold responsible for his uncle’s murder, was shot by a hired hitman in the back with an arrow, leaving him paralysed and in a wheelchair.
- In 2008, the media ethics and research site, StinkyJournalism.org, begin an investigation in Papua New Guinea into the facts of Diamond’s article.
- On April 21, 2009, The research team report that The New Yorker fact checkers ‘never contacted any of the indigenous Papua New Guinea people named in Jared Diamond’s article as unrepentant killers, rapists and thieves, before publication’.
- The team also reports that Henep Isum Mandingo is not paralysed in a wheelchair with spinal injury, as Diamond claimed.
“He [Henep Isum Mandingo] and Daniel Wemp, Diamond’s World Wildlife Fund driver in 2001-2002, and only source for The New Yorker’s revenge story in Papua New Guinea, as well as dozens of tribal members, police officials, deny Diamond’s entire tale about the bloody Ombal and Handa war, calling it ‘untrue’.”
- On April 20 2009, Daniel Wemp and Henep Isum file a summons and sue for $10 million in the Supreme Court of The State of New York. They charge Jared Diamond and Advance Publications (publishers of The New Yorker magazine and Times-Picayune newspaper) with defamation.
Now, news of the law suit is gathering pace:
The New York Post reports that New Yorker magazine is standing by its story, as does the Associated Press.
StinkyJournalism.org co-founder, Rhonda Roland Shearer believes that while Wemp may have shared his experiences with Diamond, that does not mean Diamond’s report is accurate, she told Journalism.co.uk.
Shearer reports this quote made by Wemp in an interview: ‘The facts are totally wrong in The New Yorker story. I have given all those stories to Diamond and those stories are very true and those names are not fake.’
“In other words, Wemp says he told the true stories to Diamond with real names but Diamond retold them wrongly by jumbling up information,” Shearer reports in her article, co-written with Michael Kigl, Kritoe Keleba and Jeffrey Elapa.
“I wish the circumstance wasn’t true. It’s so ugly,” Shearer told Journalism.co.uk.
A 40,000-word report (‘Real Tribes / Fake History: Errors, Failures of Method and the Consequences for Indigenous People in Papua New Guinea’) will be released by StinkyJournalism.org in coming weeks.
Shearer herself has received criticism in a comment from ‘Mi Tasol’ under the research for exaggerating the implications of the original article. “I don’t think I sensationalised the gravity of what Diamond has done. But you are entitled to your opinion,” Shearer responded. While applauding the report, and condemning Diamond’s piece, another commenter, ‘ples223,’ points out the difficulties of ‘getting stories straight’ in Papua New Guinea.
Journalism.co.uk will attempt to contact Jared Diamond and the New Yorker magazine for further comment.