Self-confessed fibber Thomas Kohnstamm is taking heat.

LP writer Thomas Kohnstamm…in hell.

EDITOR’S UPDATE:

New information on this issue has clarified Thomas’ confessions and it’s now clear that the mainstream media sources on which Eva based her post were straight-up wrong.

We’ve decided to leave Eva’s article up, but please be sure to read her follow-up comment and BNT contributing editor Tim Patterson’s take on the whole hullabaloo.

Here’s the original article:

I’ve always been a big fan of Lonely Planet’s guidebooks.

I love their sassy, youthful tone, their emphasis on low-impact and alternative travel options, their rejection of freebies from bigwig hotel chains, and the way their authors manage to find vegetarian-friendly budget options worldwide.

So imagine my surprise when I made the rounds of my usual travel blogs this morning, and came across this item on Gadling: “Lonely Planet writer admits he never visited country he wrote about.”

It seems long-time LP writer Thomas Kohnstamm has outed himself as a fraud, telling News Ltd. that not only has he plagiarized or fabricated large portions of his 12+ Lonely Planet guidebooks, but he even failed entirely to visit one of the countries he wrote about.

“They didn’t pay me enough to go (to) Columbia,” he is quoted as saying. “I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern in the Colombian Consulate.”

My first thought (after a few four-letter words with alternating question and exclamation marks after them) was: Why? Why, if you’d gotten away with something so outrageous, would you own up to it voluntarily?

A quick Google search on Kohnstamm answered my question. His first travel narrative, “Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism”, is due out next week.

Kohnstamm, it seems, is a believer in that old chestnut about there being no such thing as “bad” publicity. He is taking a calculated risk that the scandal surrounding his admissions, instead of leaving him blacklisted for life, will carry his book right onto the bestseller lists.

Sadly, he’s probably right.

The Plagiarism Double-Standard

The reality is that travel writing isn’t considered “real journalism” by the powers that be, and Kohnstamm knows it.

Think back. It hasn’t been that long since another major plagiarism scandal rocked American journalism. Remember Jayson Blair?

Blair was a young reporter who resigned from the New York Times in May 2003, after it was found that an astonishing 36 of his national news articles for the paper – including high-profile items on the Beltway sniper, Jessica Lynch, and wounded American soldiers in Iraq – had been fabricated or plagiarized from other authors.

After he was drummed out, the Times executive editor and managing editors followed, paying the price for their failure to catch Blair sooner.

Though he published a tell-all memoir in 2004 (even accusing the Times of racism) to my knowledge Jayson Blair has never worked in newspaper again.

So, will the same fate befall Thomas Kohnstamm?

I’d be surprised if Lonely Planet offers him a contract again anytime soon. But what about everyone else? Kohnstamm has also written travel articles for the likes of the Denver Post, the Miami Herald, Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle, Travel + Leisure, Time Out New York, and the Los Angeles Times.

Did he fabricate any of those pieces? Will anyone check? Most importantly, will anyone care?

The reality is that travel writing isn’t considered “real journalism” by the powers that be, and Kohnstamm knows it. So what ended Jayson Blair’s career could instead see Thomas Kohnstamm laughing all the way to the bank.

A Million Little Lies

Laughing all the way to the bank…and then his chair.

What about the book? Early reviews describe it as a funny and hard-hitting read that chronicles Kohnstamm’s boozing and womanizing in Brazil, while also exposing the ugly underbelly of the guidebook writing world.

But am I going to be the only one reading it with a whole shaker worth of salt? The man is a self-admitted plagiarizer and fraud. Isn’t it a safe assumption that some of his “wacky misadventures” and encounters with beautiful Brazilenas are figments of his imagination?

Again, that all-important question: Will anyone care?

Travel writing in newspaper form may not be considered hard journalism, but on the other side of things, travel writing in book form has always been closely related to memoir. And it’s clear that readers care about the honesty of their memoirists, as James Frey learned in 2006.

After the folks at The Smoking Gun cut his memoir of drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces, into, well, a million little pieces, Frey was dumped by his publisher and, most famously, confronted by Oprah Winfrey on national TV. Still, he’s an author on the rebound, with a new book – carefully labeled a “novel” rather than a “memoir” – due out this summer.

Will Kohnstamm’s admissions mean his book gets a careful going-over from The Smoking Gun, or even from a lone critic with time on his hands? Probably not.

It was the scale of Frey’s “embellishments”, and the emotional connection millions of readers had made with the subject matter of his book that led to the backlash. No one is going to feel hurt or betrayed if it turns out that Kohnstamm has tossed back a few fictional shots of rum, or “embellished” the size of some hot Brazilian chick’s tatas.

Things Get Personal

So if newspaper editors don’t care, and readers don’t care, you might be asking yourself: Why am I so worked up about this?

Let’s go back to those first thoughts of mine, when I came across that original Gadling post. After the four-letter words, the exclamation marks, and the “Why? WHY?” came this:

“Hey asshole! If you didn’t think the Colombia gig paid well enough to make it worthy of your time, why not pass on the assignment and let some poor struggling writer sitting in her tiny apartment waiting for a break take it on?”

Kohnstamm has done several things at once here:

  1. seriously undermined the credibility of an enormous publishing house that – in my opinion, anyway – does some pretty good work in the world
  2. re-proven in the minds of many editors that travel writers as a group are not to be taken seriously – and hey, guess what, it doesn’t benefit any of us in the long run to be considered a bunch of plagiarizing hacks
  3. taken opportunities away from other young writers who might have actually been willing to do the job they were paid for
  4. and done it all deliberately, in the name of his own self-enrichment. Nice guy, right?

What We Can Do

You might be thinking: Eva, aren’t you just playing his game by writing him up like this?

You might be thinking: Eva, aren’t you just playing his game by writing him up like this?

Well, yes and no. I won’t be buying his book, and I hope you won’t either. Read it in one of those comfy chairs at Borders if you must, but please, for the love of journalistic ethics, don’t spend a cent on it.

Furthermore, if you’d like to politely suggest to Kohnstamm’s book publisher that you don’t think much of them employing a lying, plagiarizing, self-congratulatory hack, you can email his publicist at jsones@randomhouse.com.

You can also contact Kohnstamm directly via his website.

I’ll also be keeping an eye on the response to the book as it comes out, and if I see many reviews running without a mention of Kohnstamm’s status as a guidebook con-man, I’d be happy to post the relevant editors’ email addresses in the comments section below this post for follow-up.

C’mon, Brave New Travelers. Let’s prove there IS such a thing as “bad” publicity!

If you’re not seething yet, try Aaron Hotfelder’s 5 Reasons To Be Outraged By The Lonely Planet Fraud.

For a more intellectual and far-ranging take on travel writing, memoir, and “truth”, check out Tom Bissell’s excellent World Hum essay, Truth in Oxiana.

Is Kohnstamm’s carefully timed confession a harmless publicity stunt or a shameful outrage? Please leave a comment below!

Read the editor’s follow-up to this post:

The Real Story Behind the Thomas Kohnstamm Affair

Like this Article

Like Matador