New York Times reporter, photographer fooled by Cornell students giving false names

The New York Times | IvyGate | The Cornell Daily Sun

Courtney Rubin interviewed Cornell University students "Michelle Guida" and "Vanessa Gilen" for a New York Times article about the changing world of college bars. She described the scene as they got hammered with friends on a Wednesday night:

The women, in the pre-fall evening-out uniform of tiny shorts and four-inch heels, had fortified themselves for the outing with tequila shots at home. They sat in Level B, a basement bar on the southwestern edge of the Cornell campus in Ithaca, N.Y., snapping photos of their two $18 fishbowls (each contains a half-bottle of vodka, or about 16 shots, and a plastic animal) and texting them to friends (no explanation necessary) to coax them to hurry over before the fishbowl special ended at 12:30.

But while the women Rubin spoke with were Cornell students, they appear to have given her false names. Rubin, a Cornell grad who freelances for the Times, told IvyGate's J.K. Trotter, "Obviously I can’t explain why they wouldn’t just decline to give me names in the first place — or decline to be interviewed full stop — but I certainly didn’t make them up."

Students identified as Cornell seniors John Montana, David Lieberman and Ben Johnson in a photo accompanying the article appear to have lied as well, according to The Cornell Daily Sun. They were photographed by Heather Ainsworth the night after Rubin interviewed "Guida" and "Gilen."

The three students, referred to as “Cornell seniors” in the photo caption, are identified by false names and are in fact members of the Class of 2014, according to sources who spoke with The Sun.

Rubin told The Sun's Liz Camuti and Rebecca Harris she is "honestly shocked by this."

“Short of asking people for ID, you [assume] that when people give you a name, they represent themselves as who they are or say ‘I don’t want to be quoted,’” she added. “If I asked them for IDs, they probably would’ve given me fake IDs. … I assume they gave me the names on their fake IDs.”

The Times story now has an editors' note:

An article on Thursday described the effect of social media use on the bar scene in several college towns, including the area around Cornell. After the article was published, questions were raised by the blog IvyGate about the identities of six Cornell students quoted in the article or shown in an accompanying photo.

None of the names provided by those students to a reporter and photographer for The Times — Michelle Guida, Vanessa Gilen, Tracy O’Hara, John Montana, David Lieberman and Ben Johnson — match listings in the Cornell student directory, and The Times has not subsequently been able to contact anyone by those names. The Times should have worked to verify the students’ identities independently before quoting or picturing them for the article.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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