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Alice Goffman and the problems with re-reporting ‘On the Run’ (guest column)

Alice Goffman had a rough last week.

By Friday, it looked like her heralded book on fugitives in Philly, On the Run, was unraveling under increased scrutiny. Now, New York Magazine comes to her rescue, verifying some of her disputed claims and speaking to her suspected to be fictitious sources.

Skepticism around the accuracy of her work started last year with an article in The Atlantic that questioned her claims about police trawling Philadelphia hospitals for fugitives, and hospitals cooperating in getting them arrested. In subsequent months her claims seemed to fray further as she came under a prolonged assault by Northwestern Law professor Steve Lubet, who accused her of abetting a conspiracy to attempt homicide, and fabricating research claims. In response, Goffman seemed to dig herself even deeper, offering a different version of the events in her book to defend herself from claims of having committed a felony, which did little to convince critics there weren’t major flaws in her work.

She also threw the name of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) in the mix when further insisting that Philly hospitals as a matter of regular practice collaborate with cops to lock up people with warrants. Goffman explained this practice by saying hospital employees “selectively” run the names of hospital visitors in criminal databases, searching for outstanding warrants after those visitors show identification at the door.

With Goffman finally having submitted a checkable piece of information to the increasingly-heated public debate, Philly Mag jumped in. Dan McQuade got a strongly-worded denial from CHOP, and he wasn’t able to independently corroborate her claims. I told Philly Mag that based on my years of social work with people in the criminal justice system, I could not corroborate Goffman’s allegations. Goffman seemed evasive, refusing to give specifics that could lead to a re-reporting of her work. “Trust me,” she seemed to be saying, with journalists responding, “We trust, but we also verify.” And verification wasn’t forthcoming.

Of course, nothing sets a pack of journalists hungry for answers on the hunt faster than that. One national paper proposed that Goffman could be the next infamous fabulist a la James Frey — it would be a major scandal. Her harshest critics outright called her a liar. Online, crowd-sourced fact-checkers were honing in on the location in West Philly where Goffman did her field research, and had identified a murder victim who may have been one of her research subjects.

That’s when my inbox started to get crowded with requests for my insights on West Philly. Journalists were preparing to descend on it to find Goffman’s “6th Street” crew of hustlers and stick-up artists, and ask them if her book was true.

New York has, in journalism-speak, the Big Get, having found and interviewed some of the major characters in her book. Jesse Singal, the author of the piece, wasn’t the only journalist with a national outlet who reached out for guidance on how to do it. Singal pinged me on Twitter last Friday, and we had a long talk about Goffman, West Philly and whether I thought he was on track.

I told him what I’ve told all the many journalists who contacted me since questions were first raised about her work. Would her book stand up? I suspected that it may not, at least not to the standards a print magazine would need.  She refuses to corroborate her claims, destroyed all her field notes, and until recently none of her sources could be verified (She told Newsworks on Friday that her Princeton PhD advisor had met her subjects). That intense scrutiny might poke holes in her story.

Did I think Goffman was an outright fraud? Absolutely not. Despite my opinion of her work (more on that in a bit), it’s clear she did her fieldwork. She was where she says she was, she knew who she said she knew. Having spent a decade doing social work in the same communities, and many years as a drug user before I was in recovery, overall the narrative struck me not only as very believable, but impossible for someone to wholly falsify.

Goffman deserves credit for that. She took on a big personal risk. The years that she was embedded in West Philly were particularly brutal, as the city’s murder rate in the mid-2000s compared to today was off the charts. Around the same time Goffman was watching a bloody turf war unfold on the West Side, I was across town in North Philly ducking bullets on my social work job. It was a very dangerous time, and she certainly spent more time there than 99 percent of the Internet detectives trying to out her as a fraud.

The question for New York ultimately came down to whether she saw all the things she said she saw, exactly as she says she saw them. Did she stretch the truth? That seemed possible, too, and her recent walking-back of the book’s detailed first-person description of being the driver for a strapped-up street crew out to do a hit — saying it was all “just talk” — did appear to point in that direction. However, while I told Philly Mag I couldn’t corroborate her allegations of collusion between cops and hospitals, I added a list of caveats on Twitter saying that I did find the claim believable. In a city where cops are alleged to do things like ransack bodegas or rob drug dealers and then flip the pack, putting the dope out on their own corners, there’s very little you could allege about police malfeasance I wouldn’t find believable.

But the problem was Goffman’s poor reporting, and her refusal to let a journalist retrace her steps. Just because something appeals to my biases about police corruption doesn’t make it true. It should make me want to interrogate that information even more before I accept it as fact, because that’s what people who think critically do.

Here’s why: Without naming a hospital where warrants are served like she claims, and providing the evidence to support it, she left a vacuum cops and CHOP were glad to step into with forcefully specific denials made more plausible by her intentional vagueness. I did agree with her critics that spreading such information, if proven false, could be literally deadly as it spreads to the streets and people with criminal cases stop going to the hospital when needing care for fear of arrest. Without verification, even if the claim is true, it remains impossible to hold any institution accountable and get the behavior to stop.

And, alas, while Goffman’s 6th Street crew stands up for her, Singal came up blank on finding a hospital that serves warrants, or a doctor or social worker who would say they heard of the practice. If it remains unverified, it will be a huge blemish on Goffman’s reputation. Worse, it could do incredible damage to the healthcare relationship between CHOP and West Philadelphia.

Since Goffman’s book is now mostly verified, does that mean it’s now above criticism? With the witch hunt over, the discussion of the book should return to the very rich and substantive debate about it among black academics. Those scholars have expressed a range of criticisms about the book; how Goffman focused so narrowly with a voyeur’s eye on the most pathologically criminal aspects of a neighborhood otherwise rich with personality, history and black success stories, for instance. After all, Goffman’s asserted that in spending so much time in West Philly, she had actually acquired a black identity.

If that sounds familiar, it should, as the Washington Post noted over the weekend, lampooning Goffman’s work by comparing it with News of the Weird All-Time Champion Rachel Dolezal, who has since stepped down from her position at the NAACP. Dolezal, by spray tanning, donning braids, Africana couture and weaving an intricate web of lies about her personal history, became part of black leadership and claims that despite having white parents she has a black identity. Similarly, Goffman, whose book could just as feasibly have been subtitled “A White Penn Girl’s Journey to Black and Back” says that by the time she moved on to Princeton she had become so black that “The first day, I caught myself casing the classrooms in the Sociology Department, making a mental note of the TVs and computers I could steal if I ever needed cash in a hurry.” She goes on to say how hard it was to assimilate back into wealthy whiteness.

Let’s review that: Goffman claims to have become so black, she was always looking for shit to steal. That’s blackness, and West Philly, to Alice Goffman. Something tells me some other notable residents of the place where she did fieldwork — namely Mayor Nutter — would disagree. I find this whole sub-narrative of the book deeply racist in the way that only well-meaning white, liberal Ivy League people can inadvertently be. That kneecaps what value it could have had, otherwise.

It’s interesting how white people who claim to have acquired black identity usually have something to gain from acquiring it. Goffman didn’t get so black that she decided to drop out of her PhD program and reject the book offer that would take her away from her beloved mean streets to TED Talk stardom and a job at the not-terribly-urban University of Wisconsin. She’s not so much a member of Philly’s black community that she was willing to take a job at a corner store on Haverford Avenue, enroll her kids in school at Lamberton and spend the rest of her years in anonymous poverty and oppression in solidarity with her people.

The funny thing is, a black editor probably could have saved Goffman’s book. I can’t imagine it going to press with its ludicrous claims to blackness and singular focus on criminality as the root of black urban experience if it had one. And maybe that editor would have pushed Goffman harder to nail her story down a bit better before publishing, and saved us all this drama.

Jeff Deeney is a social worker and freelance writer in Philadelphia. He spent six and a half years working in the criminal justice system.

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