A writer at the wonderful Atlas Obscura is out after eight travel stories they wrote for it turned out to be made up. “Around the World in Eighty Lies,” writes Michelle Cyca, astonished at the labor-intensive nature of Blair Mastbaum’s fabulations.
Topics ranged widely: acoustic archeology, Hawaiian cultural appropriation, an obscure dialect of sign language. Mastbaum’s first retracted story had been published in January 2022; the last one more than a year later. His final article, from February 2023, was about the Scottish town of Moffat implementing “dark weeks” to protect the night sky from artificial lighting. Except: the townsfolk of Moffat had never done such a thing; experts and locals quoted in the story had never been contacted or interviewed, and at least one does not seem to actually exist. It was an astonishing volume of lies packed neatly into an 1,100-word article. Fiction masquerading as journalism is nothing new, but in the age of Google Alerts and plagiarism checkers, it seems like it ought to be impossible to sustain a year-long series of audacious lies. How can a writer still pull off a con like this? And given the endless opportunities for scamming anonymously, why would anyone undertake such revealing and labour-intensive deceptions?
Atlas Obscura is a victim in this (previously) and its editorial process worked as well as it might given the thoroughness of the deception and the intensity of failed novelist energy at hand. Mastbaum faked notes and researched his subjects completely enough to avoid being exposed when editors fact-checked his work. He was caught after he faked quotes from living persons. There’s some discussion over whether it’s best to leave the stories up with warning notes or get rid of them entirely1. Fake quotes are potentially libelous, after all.
I admire the way things are going in journalism a bit like how the broken robot in Alien admires the xenomorphs. I can’t lie to you about our chances but … we have my sympathies.
1. Another famous quote from the Alien franchise comes to mind.