Elephant’s Leg


Journalism 101: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

As I work in the press, I’m always quick to defend journalists, especially against the stereotype that they “make things up”.

It is true, though, that facts can be shaped to fit an agenda, and also that whenever there are two or more sides to a story, a journalist can take whichever side best fits his remit. But they can’t simply make things up.

For a start, it’s against the law. If a newspaper prints a story about a person or event, and cannot prove that it is true if required to do so, then it will face penalties.

Take, for example, the 2004 case of the Daily Mirror‘s publication of photos which apparently showed British soldiers abusing an Iraqi captive. Desperate for a sensational scoop, The Mirror didn’t check the authenticity of the pictures, which were later proven to be fake. The result – editor Piers Morgan was fired.

So, a publication really can’t “make things up” without risking personal, political or financial repercussions. However, that’s not to say it never happens. While I may be quick to defend the press against this stereotype, at the same time I am quick to criticise journalists who do contribute to it.

Of course, they’re all out for a good story, and they all dream of that sensational scoop. Fair enough. But if it isn’t there, you shouldn’t force it to be there. Don’t create a sensation where one does not exist, and do not add details that don’t exist for the sake of adding character or credence to the story. In other words, don’t make it up.

So, while I’m often quick to defend journalists, by the same token I believe those who are guilty of passing off fantasies as facts, or who use creative licence to such a degree that they are no longer writing non-fiction, should be named and shamed.

By all means have a stance, an agenda. We all have our remits and our biases; this is human nature, as well as the nature of the media. But the points used to engender a stance must at least have grounds in reality, or else you risk damaging your own reputation, as well as that of your employer.

“If only one investigative journalist follows my footsteps, then my death won’t have been in vain.”

When it comes to sensationalism, Bangkok is an easy target. Even people who have never been here will have their opinions about it, right or wrong, mostly formed from the movies and the lurid tales that their friends bring home from their holidays.

Much of it is exaggerated, but not outrageously so. The real Bangkok is variously exotic, steamy, sexy, dangerous, chaotic, cultured, corrupt. The city’s reputation precedes it, and in many ways it is justified. The possibilities for an investigative journalist are endless.

Which makes it all the more unforgiveable when one writes a piece that is so ludicrously overblown, and in which the “facts” are so easily debunked by anyone with even the most passing experience in Bangkok, that it calls into question whether the writer has even visited the city.

The story in question appears here. Note that is not the work of a ranting blogger or an enthusiastic but undertrained freelancer.

No, it is an article published by Maxim, one of the world’s leading glossy men’s magazines, and attributed to a scribe called Mark Ebner, who, apparently “has been covering crime and Hollywood for 20 years”.

The piece is a follow-up on the shadowy death of David Carradine in a Bangkok hotel room last June. (Unfortunately the article was only recently brought to my attention.) Carradine’s passing, whether suicide, murder, or sex games gone wrong, was the ideal backdrop to a piece of investigative reportage from one of the world’s most infamous sin cities.

It could have been done so well. But Ebner apparently visited a Bangkok that, in cultural terms, hasn’t existed since the 70s, and in geographical terms, doesn’t exist at all! His sense of geography makes you wonder if indeed he’d even physically set foot in the city.

The creative licence used to colour his adventures are so far-fetched that an article with such potential loses all credibility – and even if (and I don’t) that could be justified as merely an application of the art, what can’t be forgiven, especially for such a prestigious magazine, are the atrocious geographical errors which riddle the piece, followed by the downright irresponsible reports of child prostitution.

At best, this writer simply wasn’t paying attention when here. At worst, perhaps Ebner didn’t even travel to Bangkok at all.

You can read the full article at Maxim.Com but for your convenience, here are some selected passages.

… wasn’t it a little too convenient that such a sordid suicide should take place in Bangkok, the sex capital of the world?

Ebner sets out his stall early. Yes, Bangkok has a deserved reputation for its vice, but sex capital of the world? OK, it’s up there in the rankings, for sure, but even within the same country, Pattaya is by far the more notorious, and within the region Phnom Penh is just as infamous, with a darker tone, too.

I’m not saying the writer is essentially wrong in his description of Bangkok – after all, how would you measure such a thing? – but I have the feeling that if Carradine had died in Amsterdam, the same writer would have applied the same label there.

… a teeth-rattling cab ride through the smog-choked, sweltering squalor of metro Bangkok, dodging rickshaws and limbless sidewalk cripples begging for change.

Teeth-rattling? Bangkok’s – and, in fact, most of Thailand’s – roads are flat and paved and have been for some time.

Squalour? Yes, there are slums in Bangkok, but an average crosstown cab ride doesn’t even come close to them. Large parts of Bangkok are modern and well-maintained.

Dodging rickshaws? Rickshaws? Did Ebner board a time machine rather than a commercial airline, and land in Bangkok 1974 rather than Suvarnabhumi Airport? Hands up anyone who’s seen a rickshaw in modern-day Bangkok. Anyone? OK, in the last decade? Two? Anyone at all? Thought so.

Smog, sweltering temperatures and “limbless cripples” (even though that is an excellent example of tautology, and since he says they were on the sidewalk, why was his cab forced to dodge them?), I’ll give him.  But already we can see the writer is more concerned with painting an atmosphere to suit the story, rather than “follow in Carradine’s footsteps”, as he claims is his mission.

Open-air sex, Patpong market style

A vast open-air sex market, the Patpong is a 20-minute walk from the hotel…

Ebner’s description of his adventures in Bangkok’s red light districts are where he really gets lost. “The” Patpong? Nobody calls it “the” Patpong any more than people call London’s red light district “the” Soho.

A “vast, open-air sex market”? Well, I won’t dispute the “sex market” description, but that side of things is far from open-air. Patpong’s sex – and sale of such – goes on behind the doors of bars and massage parlours, not in the street. True, street walkers do ply their trade in Bangkok, but Patpong’s set-up is primarily indoors. There is an open-air market in Patpong, though – only it sells bootlegged clothes and watches, not sex.

Furthermore, to walk from the Nai Lert Park Hotel to Patpong – and good luck with that, given that one thing the author accurately conveys is the city’s heat and humidity – would probably take over an hour, not a mere 20 minutes.

The Patpong is divided into Soi 4, which is predominantly gay; Soi Cowboy, a note-perfect re-creation of pre-Disney Times Square, designed to cater to the Western tourist; and Nana Plaza, which is where they keep the kink.

OK, now he’s really lost me. For a start, Patpong, Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza are three entirely different, and distinct, places, all separated by distances that require taxi rides or skytrain/subway runs. There’s no possible way anyone could mistake them being one and the same – unless, perhaps, they hadn’t even set foot in Bangkok and research for the article consisted of Googling “Bangkok red light district”?

Finally, is Nana Plaza really where they “keep the kink”? If so, would those in the know care to share this information with me? (We’ll discuss the kickback later.) Because as far as I can tell, all three red light areas offer much the same fare of standard hostess bars and go-go joints. Now, if women dancing in bikinis or fawning over middle-aged men is “the kink”, then so be it, but personally it takes a bit more than that to shock me.

Typical prostitutes line up outside the Nana Hotel

Looking for answers at the dodgy Nana Hotel, I meet a striking-looking child bride…

This is where Ebner goes beyond mere inaccuracy and enters dangerous irresponsibility. In painting his lurid picture of the supposed world’s sex capital, he couldn’t resist throwing into the mix a predictable dose of paedophilia.

Let me make this clear: in almost two years living in Bangkok, not once have I seen anything that even hinted at child prostitution. Unfortunately there was once a time when Thailand was on the map for such things, but like the author’s experiences with rickshaws, that is something that was left behind decades ago.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen somewhere, but the point is that the average tourist is not going to walk into one of Bangkok’s most famous and busiest streets and be propositioned by a child, just like that.

I do not spend a lot of time in Patpong, but I have been there enough times to comment on it, and as said, if I haven’t seen such things in my two years here, I very much doubt this writer would have within a day of arrival.

For the record, while prostitution remains technically illegal in Thailand, it is tolerated and well-regimented, and the working girls in the bars are all 20 and older – and have the ID to prove it. It is more than a bar’s business is worth to break such serious laws.

Thailand has worked hard to cast off its reputation as a child sex destination and this article sets back such efforts. If it was an expose, detailing how such practices continue, then it might have had merit, but coming as it does in the midst of an article strewn with inaccuracies and sensationalism, then we have to take it for what it appears to be: rubbish.

…but for 10,000 baht (roughly $300 in U.S. currency) she will come back to my hotel…

At anything from five to 10 times the going rate, this guy’s Googling hit on the wrong info. Unless he really was here, and was quoted that, which I suppose would be possible if he showed as much cluelessness in his interactions as he does in his writing – Bangkok’s ladies of the night can spot a sucker coming a mile off (or even a “20-minute walk” away).

Mr Ebner, come on, this is not rural North Korea or a far-flung Pacific island. You can’t write wildly fanciful things about the capital city of a country which attracts over a million tourists a year and has a population of eight million people, with a large, English-speaking expat population, and expect to get away with it.

Thankfully the comments added to the article call him to task, but so far neither the man himself nor the commissioning magazine have responded.

5 Comments so far
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The author responds to Bangkok Post sub-editor, Oliver Fennell:

It really is amusing to see the outrage coming at me about the Maxim story, especially when it’s spearheaded by a “colleague.” I come from a place where we in the ink trade try to help each other out rather than tear each other down, but, with you, I’ll bite. Do I think the story is perfect? Hell no. They never are. I was in town for three short days, and did the best I could in a strange city. Sure, there were some factual errors in what made it to the printed page, but nothing more egregious than my editor swapping out “tuk tuks” for “rickshaws.” Hell, I caught that one myself.

The other BIG issue for you seems to be with my sense of local geography. Sorry man, but I walked from the Nai Lert Park Hotel down Telegraph to and around the places described (Patpong, Nana, Cowboy) in an evening – and I passed embassies on the way. I may be off in distances traveled and the time it took to walk from one place to another, but really – so what?

What else? The “penis shrine” in the room. It should be clear that I was quoting your coroner on that one, and that I knew of the actual shrine outside the hotel. I described it straight away in my piece.

I think I’ve addressed the issues leading the outraged posse to claim that I wasn’t even there, and am left with the feeling that you all are just taking an American journalist pissing on your town a little too personally.

Don’t like my prose? I’m honored that you took the time to respond to it. Anger is a valid response to my journalism, but riddle me the irony of the guy trying to sell me the Carradine morgue photos BEING ON STAFF AT YOUR NEWSPAPER. Think hard on that before you start banging me on ethics, friend. And if you see “Bangkok Dan” around town, tell him I think he’s a pussy for trying to back-flip off of his on the record taped quotes, put down in perfect context. I promised him nothing in exchange for the interview (not a bottle – nothing) and actually thought he was a nice guy until I read his bullshit comments.

Anyway Oliver, there’s your response. Feel free to share it with the posse.

I wish you continued success and joy,

Mark Ebner

Comment by Mark Ebner

Thank you for responding.

First of all, I have no ill will towards you as “an American journalist pissing on your town a little too personally.” It’s merely as I say: journalists getting FACTS wrong – deliberately or otherwise – gives us all a bad name. I agree in principle that us “colleagues” should help each other, but not to the point of tolerating practises which harm the trade.

A copy editor changing something, I can accept. It can happen to anybody. And also I can believe you walked around town, as uncomfortable as it may have been. That in itself that is to be applauded because the best way to get a feel for a city is at ground level.

However, it remains that you made some huge errors and to simply dismiss them with a “but really – so what” does you no favours. You may argue it’s not important, and to the readers who have never been here, it wouldn’t be. But you can see from the comments attached to the Maxim Online version and The Shark Guys blog (not mine), that others DO consider it important.

The penis shrine and Bangkok Dan were addressed by The Shark Guys, not me, so I have no comment on that. Neither do I know Bangkok Dan, so I’m unavailable to pass on any messages, but certainly if I ever meet him, I will ask. As a “colleague” I do know that differences between interviewer and interviewee can arise, so I won’t automatically assume anything on either side.

Yes, you addressed SOME of the issues, and I appreciate that, but nevertheless the errors were too big to be brushed off, and I did take particular exception to the child prostitution angle. I suppose you can say it did happen, and if so, there’s nothing I can do to prove you wrong. It’s just surprising that someone who lives here has never seen anything even resembling that, yet you found it almost immediately.

Finally, regarding the “ethics” of someone here trying to sell you the photo. First of all, it’s not my department, as I am a mere sub. Secondly, not that I’m excusing it, but it would hardly be the first time such opportunities were pursued in our trade. Finally, if he was attempting to sell fake photos, then I would have just as much indignancy for him as I would for someone selling a story with false reportage, regardless of who his employer is.

Again, thank you for taking the time to reply, and for allowing the debate to be public. As I do not know you, I assure you it’s nothing personal, and while it’s natural you have defended yourself, I do hope you take on board the things that have been said, even if they may have been said in a more acidic fashion than you appreciate.



Comment by elephantsleg

I’ve seen those original Thai Rath photos a mega amount of times, and can still hardly make anything out of them. Came all the way from the States getting paid to write an article and didn’t even buy a beer for your interviewee, what a total tight-fist!!

That’s one hell of a walk to do in one evening – well, perhaps he was sleepwalking as he certainly dreamt it up…

Comment by Stephen C

We are all used to the artistic licence of journalists covering Thailand, and Bangkok in particular.

I have lived here now for 14 years and (happily) have never encountered anything remotely to do with child prostutution. Like the author I accept it used to happen, and no doubt still does in predominantly, Thai areas, (many Thais still consider 15 to be acceptable as it is the age of consent in Thailand, but in the tourist areas it is a total no-no and would not be tolerated even if it did raise its ugly head.

With regards to the walk, well he is a better man than me. Patpong to Nana Plaza would take 90 minutes even if you actually knew the way, which is highly unlikely. The description of them as being “adjacent” make me also doubt the fact that he was ever actually here.

Comment by Thaigerweb

Stephen, Thaigerweb, thanks for joining “the posse”, as Mr Ebner puts it. Unfortunately the sheer numbers who have objected to his article mean nothing. Via private email, he has admitted his errors (what else could he do?), but he is unshakeable in his belief that such errors are unimportant. Well, I guess a journalist who has “covered crime and Hollywood for 20 years” is beyond reproach, even if on further investigation the majority of his work seems to fit the remit of “point and laugh at Paris Hilton and Scientologists”. Challenging stuff.

Comment by elephantsleg

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