On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Slate published Diary dispatches by “Robert Klingler,” who purported in his bio note to be “the North American head of a European auto manufacturer.” When Slate readers pointed out to the editors that neither Google.com nor Nexis searches produced any hits for a “Robert Klingler and the automobile industry,” we assumed the worst and took the entries down from the site. A phone call to the European auto company in question confirmed that no “Robert Klingler” works for them.
How did Slate, and by extension its readers, get duped?
“Klingler” first identified himself as an automotive CEO in correspondence with the editor of Slate’s “Fray” discussion area, where he had posted messages. In subsequent e-mails to another Slate editor, he agreed to write the Diary. One of “Klingler’s” many e-mails appeared to originate from the auto manufacturer he claimed to head. In it, he asked Slate to correspond with him through his AOL e-mail account because he wanted to keep his personal and business correspondence separate. Also, so that he could write with more candor, he asked that we ID him as “the North American head of a European auto manufacturer.” We agreed on both counts.
We shouldn’t have agreed to either of his terms. Any correspondence with “Klingler” through his auto company e-mail address would have immediately revealed the hoax. (From our Hindsight is Golden Department, we can report that repeated e-mails sent today to “Klingler’s” business e-mail address bounced back as “undeliverable.”) Had we not given “Klingler” the benefit of partial anonymity, he probably would have withdrawn his offer to write. Or he would have been unmasked as a fake by the car company within hours of his first Diary posting.
Technically, how did “Klingler” dupe Slate? Every e-mail sent on the Internet includes a “header,” which contains information about the e-mail’s provenance. The headers from “Klingler’s” business e-mail address show conclusively that the return address was forged, a relatively simple thing to do. The headers make it clear that the e-mails originated from a private Internet domain registered to an individual on the West Coast. The phone number for the domain is no longer in service. And messages left on “Klingler’s” phone have gone unreturned.
We have removed the entries from the Diary section of Slate because we believe them to be fiction. But because you can no more unpublish an article on the Web than you can unring a bell, we have also decided to post them here as a sidebar. We do this in the interests of transparency, and as a reminder to ourselves that we’ve failed your trust. Slate apologizes to its readers and promises greater vigilance in the future.
We also hope to unmask our hoaxer as we learn more. Feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.