Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mr. SHAM gets scammed.

OK. There are two reasons why I've called a halt to our series of horror stories. I've already alluded to Reason 1: the looming threat of legal repercussions from one of the stories I've featured to date. But there's a second reason, whose possibility did not occur to me when I originally embarked on this enterprise (though the risks seem all so obvious in hindsight).

I got snookered, folks.

Well, not quite. But almost. There's a long story to be told here, and someday I may tell all of it. For now, suffice it to say that in the course of re-reading Horror Story No. 3 one last time before publication*, something in the narrative suddenly didn't sit right—one of those "little things" you tend to miss the first or second time through. That motivated me to do a bit more double-checking, which, in turn, led to some reverse phone-number look-up (which I should've been doing all along, to be honest. Just as an added measure of security). At this point the whole story began to unravel fast, and it became clear that I'd been had: Someone had cooked up and fed me a whale of a tale. Here things get a bit fuzzy. I'm presuming—though I can't yet prove—that the ruse originated on The Dark Side, perhaps in order to get me to embarrass myself (even more than usual) in black and white. By revealing after publication that the whole thing was a hoax, the perps would demonstrate not only what a hopeless dupe and shoddy journalist I am, but how easily I'll throw caution to the wind in my eagerness to savage self-help. Or possibly they had an even more sinister motive in mind. Rest assured, if I get to the point where I feel I have a sturdy enough handle on the particulars, I'll publish all the names and numbers and we'll let the chips fall where they may. I should mention, however, that already one of the key phone numbers "has been changed," says Ma Bell, and "no further information is available..."

Meanwhile, I now have my suspicions about the legitimacy of a second story.

I suppose it's possible that the folks behind this gambit did it "just to do it." Or maybe someone with the mother of all grudges against self-help decided to produce the horror story to end all horror stories. But I don't think so. The plot we're talking about was pretty intricate and, I think, devious: It relied on the coordinated activities of several seemingly unrelated people in different states...not unlike those 5-star review-writing campaigns that we saw in the early days of Dr. Phil's Love Smart (and that follow the publication of any major new self-help book these days. Certainly we saw this with The Secret as well).

A mea culpa here. Because I solicited for these vignettes on this blog—among what I took to be a sympathetic audience—and because readers took the initiative in responding to me (or forwarding my solicitation to "good candidates"), I was more credulous in taking respondents at their word than I would've been in dealing with hostile subjects whom I'd had to chase down on my own. The bottom line, in any case, is that this episode has doubly sensitized me to the fact that I'm working without a net here, as the saying goes. There's no one to backstop me—no one whose deep (legal) pockets I can reach into**—should things get ugly. Though I think I've demonstrated my willingness to go out on a limb when I feel it's called for, that's not a risk I want to make a practice of assuming on something as informal (and, frankly, unprofitable) as a blog. And on material as slippery and subjective as our horror stories.

This doesn't necessarily mean that I'm forever burying the rest of the stories that some of you were kind enough and courageous enough to share. From time to time I may throw in (or at least make reference to) a story that I've had a chance to research backwards and forwards, and that I'm confident contains no journalistic or legal land mines. Today, I just wanted to explain a little bit of what's been going on.

* And I may have said this before, but it bears restating: Blogging is publishing. If you defame someone in a blog, you have defamed that person as surely as if you did it on Page 1 of The New York Times. The nature of the recourse may be somewhat different—and the aggrieved party may have a harder time proving damages and/or collecting—but the offense is the same.
** Let's see how many metaphors I can mangle in one post.


Mary Anne said...

Steve, I applaud you for what you are doing and I sympathize. I have been kicked out of a few "leadership" seminars and websites due to my critical thinking skills. Of course in the places I travel, my ability to reason is called "negativity." I was going to post about publishing again, but this blog raises a good point about how websites get manipulated. In my experience with corporate America, they control all the access to their websites and seminars. It is very difficult or downright impossible to have an exchange of ideas or dispute their "theories." I had to have my attorney contact someone for a blog that deframed my character. I was attacked for pointing out some "facts" or as he called them "snapshots of reality" on his website. So Steve you are greatly needed and keep it up.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like somebody was going out of their way to protect their lucrative, cash-generating franchise.

Sorry to hear you got burned.

Steve Salerno said...

Let's just say I got singed. Fortunately I still have enough journalistic instincts left to protect me--at least in this case--from third-degree burns.

As to your larger point: I could go on and on in ways that make me sound like a conspiracy theorist of true lunatic-fringe dimensions. But it's like my complaints at around this time two years ago about Amazon's choice of "spotlight reviews" for my then-newly published book. For the most part, SHAM received a glowing reception from formal reviewers (like PW, etc.); it also quickly generated a 3.5-star rating on Amazon itself (without, I might add, the benefit of any organized good-review-writing campaign that I'm aware of). Yet look at the reviews that Amazon very quickly settled on as its feature reviews for SHAM, and continues to use to this day: a 1-star review and a 2-star review. Both pretty much total pans of the book. One titled "dreadfully argued," the other titled "throws the baby out with the bath water."

I mean, come on. Let's be real here....

Citizen Deux said...

Steve - WoW!!! Another reminder how powerful individuals are in the interconnected world in which we live. Both for good and ill. I nevertheless appreciate your sharing these stories. They can be helpful - as Rick Ross' website has been - to those enmeshed in the self-help quagmire.

Somewhere a solid analysis of human nature, as unmasked on the internet exists waiting to further illustrate how close to primal we beasts truly are.