My Semi-Secret Federal Lawsuit
If fiction and non-fiction are the same, then what does it mean for something to be "true?"

March 18, 2012

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If you remember back to August or September, 2010, you might recall watching a movie trailer for The Social Network. It begins with a haunting rendition of Radiohead's "Creep" by the girls' chorus of Scala & Kolacny Brothers. I'd never heard the song before I saw the trailer, but it made quite an impression the first time I did, mostly because of an editing decision that led to the inclusion of one line: "I want you to notice / When I'm not around."

By 2010, that line resonated strongly, not because I felt pressured (like most of America's youth) to use Facebook as a tool to attract attention, but because I felt the world was ignoring some important truths about Facebook: namely, that it was built in an unlawful manner that most people are not aware of; that its founder exhibits sociopathic and megalomaniacal tendencies; and that the consequences of the cultural shift away from personal privacy are serious. At the time the trailer was released, it was well known that the movie was based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. It was also known to some that Mr. Mezrich had a long and well-documented history of fictionalizing true stories to make them more palatable to movie studios. Yet when his story hit the big screen, that knowledge—to whatever extent it existed in the minds of the audience members—faded away, and The Social Network became the de facto historical record of how Facebook, Inc. began.

This weekend, This American Life retracted its story about Apple, Inc.'s manufacturing facilities because of the myriad errors contained in Mike Daisey's monologue, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." Just about every major news publication has covered the story. Yet despite the surge of public scrutiny, what's not being said is that the issue of fact versus fiction extends far beyond Mike Daisey and Ira Glass (who, it should be noted, did an incredible job with the retraction and is one of the few remaining journalists left in our country). It turns out that a great deal of the non-fiction literature we read and rely upon is partially or totally made up.

Before The Accidential Billionaires there was James Frey (who invented virtually everything in his so-called memoir A Million Little Pieces) and Ishmael Beah (whose account of life as a child soldier in Africa could not be verified and contradicted known historical facts); alongside him, there is Greg Mortenson (defending himself in federal court in Montana for donating his "non-fiction" book's proceeds to "charity"); and then there's John D'Agata (reviewed in The New York Times and most notable for his enthusiasm around conflating fiction and fact), to say nothing of Herman Rosenblat (who faked a Holocaust memoir) and Margaret B. Jones (who is not actually a Native American). One can't even be sure that fiction is original, as proven by Kaavya Viswanathan and her numerous predecessors over the years in the fine art of plagiarism.

It's easy to seem holier-than-thou when discussing the failings of others, and so I should clarify that of course no one is perfect, myself included. I do occasionally make mistakes. They are not, however, mistakes of the type described above: those deliberately intended to mislead others into purchasing a fraudulent product so that I may benefit from a sizable financial gain.

This is the area in which Ben Mezrich excels above all of his peers by an order of magnitude. (After all, you can't spell Mezrich without R-I-C-H.) The combined revenues from The Social Network and The Accidental Billionaires are well over two hundred million dollars, possibly closer to three hundred million. That is an enormous amount of money, even if the book author only received 1% (and based on what has been reported, his advance for the book alone was $1.9 million).

It is also an enormous amount of money made at my expense. And for that reason, I filed a lawsuit against Mr. Mezrich, his company, his publisher, and his movie distributor in November, 2011.

There has been barely any coverage of this lawsuit, with one article presenting the facts in an interesting but not altogether accurate light. The article claims that I am suing Mr. Mezrich because I was not in The Social Network. That's certainly half of it. The other half is that The Social Network and the book it is based on are not even close to being true—which is why I don't appear in the movie. Yet Mezrich has appeared on national television, at conferences, and in print defending all of his work as "true." You'll find it in the non-fiction aisle (at least in those few remaining bookstores that have them). He also uses a phrase that Mike Daisey has recently made famous: he is absolutely willing to "stand by" all of it.

I'm not. I'm not willing to stand by as CEOs such as Richard Fairbank tell thousands of people (and me) that they should look to the movie and Zuckerberg as a source of inspiration as they prepare to make important life choices. Nor am I willing to stand by and let Mezrich slander me or my family members, as he did in November, 2011, so that he might protect his profits.

You see, unlike Mr. Daisey, who simply told a staggering number of point-blank lies, Mr. Mezrich has A) told a number of point-blank lies; B) lied about telling those lies; C) enlisted his PR agent, his wife and possibly others to post fake, misleading and sometimes pseudonymous five-star reviews of his books on in violation of FTC advertising guidelines; D) convinced C-SPAN, a channel specifically known for presenting only factual material, that he is a reliable source; E) falsely accused his critics of having ulterior motives whenever his ethics have come into question; and F) profited from his fraudulent actions more than Mike Daisey could ever dream of. I find all of these unacceptable.

That this kind of behavior could go on for roughly a decade without anyone in the mainstream media calling attention to it suggests that something is deeply wrong with the press in this country. There was plenty of coverage of The Social Network, both leading up to and after its release. Not one reporter thought to investigate it a little further?

Put another way, if Mike Daisey had appeared on Fox or CNN, there would have been no retraction. Even an archetype of hard journalism such as CBS's 60 Minutes would not admit that they had made a mistake. (How can I be so sure? Shachar Bar-On, producer of both of Lesley Stahl's Facebook segments, talked to me before each one and assured me that a critical viewpoint would air. Both times, none did.) Television media, with the notable exception of Comedy Central, is in the business of manufacturing puff piece after puff piece, and Silicon Valley could ask for nothing more.

It is slightly odd, one must admit, that so much fabrication goes on surrounding technology companies. Mike Daisey wasn't talking about just anything, he was talking about Apple. It's likely that no one would have cared otherwise. And Ben Mezrich didn't just choose anything as his topic of gross exaggeration, he chose Facebook, a company that has convinced the world largely through expert media manipulation that it is worth $100 billion. The problem is that just as real people bought tickets to The Social Network with the expectation that it was actually true, many of those same real people will actually invest in common shares of Facebook with the expectation that it will actually be a good investment. Already, just about every venture capitalist on Sand Hill Road is convinced that there is no better business model than advertising-based social networking.

For so many reasons, this is absolutely crazy. We are so surrounded by falsehood (or to use the technical term my father prefers, "bullshit") that it is no longer possible to even see the horizon anymore. And it's piled so high and so deep that it is all bound to collapse, which, for all of the usual reasons associated with collapse, is a scary thought.

So there you have it. I'm not just suing the State of California over its unconstitutional law written by financial lobbyists for the exclusive benefit of multi-billion dollar corporations. I'm also suing Ben Mezrich on copyright infringement, defamation, racketeering, and fraud charges, among others. (And Random House. And Sony Pictures. And Mezrich's shell corporation.)

Does that make me litigious? Yes, it certainly does. And I wouldn't have it any other way. For the real question isn't whether or not I know how to defend my rights in court. The real questions are whether or not it makes me right to do so, and whether or not society will benefit from my having done it. As Ira Glass and This American Life have aptly demonstrated, I think the answer to both is "yes."


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October 4, 2012 at 12:06 PM EDT

I'm suing you for annoying me. Do I have the right? Yes I do :)


January 2, 2013 at 11:49 PM EST

You sir are a sour puss... did'nt you already get paid?

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