Literary Squabbles: Forgetfulness, Montauketts and The New York Times

Literary Squabbles: Forgetfulness, Montauketts and The New York Times

Last month, I wrote a story about Governor Cuomo vetoing a bill that would have granted state recognition to the Montaukett Tribe. The tribe has a long, tragic history of trying to co-exist with the white settlers and, in 1917, was declared defunct by a court.

In writing this story, I had to gather a great many facts from different sources. I used Google to do this and found references about Stephen Talkhouse—one of the tribal members, who died in 1879; about Wyandanch, the chief of the tribe when the white man came; about the Shinnecock Indians, a neighboring tribe; and about Arthur Benson, a Brooklyn millionaire who, in the year Talkhouse died, bought all of Montauk and paid each Montaukett a certain sum to move, which they did.

I should note that with Google, we journalists can appear to be as smart as any scholar. We are not, of course. But the references make us appear so.

One reference to Arthur Benson about his 1879 purchase came from The New York Times. And that is what I want to write about here.

The article in The Times, published in its NY REGION section, said, among other things, that Arthur Benson had offered money to each Montaukett Indian on the Montauk peninsula to move off because he wanted the place free of human habitation so that he and his family and friends could go hunting and fishing. The amount he paid each of them was $80. With this money, they could purchase a one-way train ticket to the Oneonta Reservation in upstate New York or to a place where Montauketts lived in Wisconsin. That seemed to be the end of the Montaukett Tribe, which, in 1917, was officially declared defunct.

Anyway, the amount paid, $80, was a different amount than what a different source’s article about Arthur Benson reported. But $80 was a lot of money in those days. The other source, a pamphlet, said it was $10.

Since there was a discrepancy, I decided The New York Times was probably more accurate. So I went with $80.

Now, at this point, I should tell you how my articles are fact checked before they go into Dan’s Papers. We have hired a professional freelance fact checker, who works by the hour reading what I write. To prepare my articles to be e-mailed to him, I cut and paste the computer links to my research at the bottom of my articles. Usually within 24 hours, the FC (as we call him) returns my story with challenges about facts in red capital letters. I then have to either find a new link to show it is correct, or I have to reword the story. After that, it goes into the paper.

Now, for the story in question, FC had only one comment. I had written $80. Hadn’t I meant $10? He’d found the amount elsewhere and it was $10.

I went back to The New York Times story and read it more carefully. He’d had that link, too. The author says $80. Who wrote that story, anyway? I read it down to the end, and there it listed the author of the piece. It was me.

And that’s pretty funny. How had I learned it was $80?

Ha. This is like looking in a mirror in a mirror in a mirror. Because someone must have told me $80 back when I wrote the Times story and I believed it—I didn’t use Google then. This seems to completely destroy the credibility of our system for getting everything right. Furthermore, right at the top of The New York Times article on Google is a warning from the Times. It says that this article is for your personal, noncommercial use only. So I am apparently forbidden to write again about what I wrote then, even though I wrote it. So I shouldn’t even be writing about it now.

More complications.

Now here I have to say I have no recollection of writing this story for The New York Times. Maybe I did and forgot? Who forgets writing an article for The New York Times? And it is not even in my style. I write in a breezy style. This is in a pinched, dry New York Times style, with my name on it.

Furthermore, I write for Dan’s Papers. And now it occurred to me that perhaps I initially wrote this for Dan’s Papers, and then somehow The Times got hold of it, either asked my permission or didn’t, rewrote it, put my name on it, and published it there.

This I could find out. The article in The Times appeared on March 6, 1991. I searched through my files, both online and in all the back issues of Dan’s Papers that fill my library, and found that I had written the article on February 9, 1991 (that’s the date I saved it on the computer), and published it in Dan’s Papers on February 16. Then, re-written, it got reprinted in The New York Times on March 6.

Here’s an example from my article as it appeared on February 16, followed by a dry, re-written account, nearly word for word, in The New York Times on March 6.

In Dan’s Papers in February:

“Arthur Benson was a wealthy New Yorker who lived in the middle of the 19th century. His name is well known to most Montaukers because in 1879, he bought the place, all of Montauk, from Lighthouse to Amagansett, on the steps of the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in an auction held in August of that year.”

In The New York Times in March:

“Arthur Benson was indeed a New York Industrialist who lived in the 19th century. In the summer of 1879, he read about a huge tract of land, 16 miles long, that a group called the Proprietors of Montauk were selling at auction on the steps of the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse.”

There is another difference in these two stories.

In the Dan’s Papers story, I am taking to task a professor of history at Stony Brook University named Gaynell Stone, who curated a museum exhibit of Montaukett artifacts at the beginning of January 1991 at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

The show opened. I went. In a part of the exhibit, Stone wrote about the awful Arthur Benson, who bought Montauk in 1879 and then put in streets and houses and developed the place through his corporation, the Montauk Improvement Company.

Stone is confused, I wrote in my story for Dan’s Papers after seeing the exhibit. Benson died half a century before the creation of the Montauk Improvement Company. Benson never developed Montauk—he just hunted, camped and fished on it. It wasn’t developed until a developer created the Montauk Improvement Company in 1926 to put in houses, roads, stores and resort hotels. The man who did that was Carl Fisher.

The article in The New York Times says it is written by me, an alert reader of The Times, taking The Times to task for repeating in an earlier Times story what Stone inaccurately said at the exhibit about Benson developing Montauk.

IN DEFENSE OF A MONTAUK FOUNDER The Times article is headlined. That is not my headline. And Benson is not a founder of Montauk.

“As the publisher of a local East End newspaper,” it begins (this is not what I wrote), “I take offense at the recent coverage in The New York Times about the Indian Artifact exhibit at Guild Hall” and I go on to correct The New York Times for having quoted the inaccurate Stone. Now, with my having pointed out The Times’ inaccuracy, they are repenting.

If The Times looks into this today and finds I approved of all of this and was even paid for it but forgot, I shall have to write still another article, fully fact-checked, of course.

BACK TO Dan Rattiner's Stories

You must be logged in to vote.