All in the Family

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We've probably all done it: told a white lie, padded the truth, exaggerated a claim. Advertisers are known for it -- but serious journalists? Apparently, when writers have a book to plug, they can be just as eager to get creative with the truth as the folks hawking Downy and Cheese Dawgs. And that's especially amusing when the one doing the truth-stretching has written critical articles about marketing. Enter Malcolm Gladwell, one of the New Yorker's most talented scribes. The man has a new book, called The Tipping Point (Little, Brown), which received attention in a recent interview with Gladwell by Alex Kuczynski of The New York Times. During the conversation, Gladwell claimed -- apropos of nothing, it appears -- to be related to General Colin Powell.

Really? Then he must know my longtime friends, Marilyn Berns, Powell's only sister, and her daughter, Leslie Berns!

I call Leslie. "Ever meet Malcolm Gladwell? He says he's related to your uncle."

"Maybe my mother does."

No luck there, either. "So-called relatives come out of the woodwork," Marilyn Berns says. "A few we find out are related. Most aren't."

Can Gladwell clarify? He responds via e-mail: "No one in my family has worked out the precise genealogy, but my great grandmother was a Powell from Top Hill [Jamaica], where the Colin Powells are from. So it's probably a distant connection."

The next morning Leslie calls back. "Uncle Colin says he doesn't know him. He gets 10 of these a week -- people saying they're related."

But the New York Times writer checked it out, right? "He's related to Powell . . . through his mother," Kuczynski says. "Very distantly." But because of her daily deadline, factchecking fell by the wayside. Which is hardly good enough for Martin J. Smith, senior editor at The Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. Even if deadlines make factchecking impractical or impossible, says Smith, "any intuitive editor trains himself or herself to spot red flags -- the over-inflated and self-promotional claim, the overstated sense of purpose."

Did Gladwell make such claims? Was he fibbing when he boasted of his blood relations with the General? Perhaps Powell's office can help. "He doesn't know Mr. Gladwell and never heard of him," says Powell's assistant, Peggy Cifrino. "Since he doesn't know Gladwell's mother's maiden name, he has no idea if there's a relationship. There's lots of Powell clans up on Top Hill."

When quizzed again about his alleged family ties, Gladwell insists that he is related, "distantly," to Colin Powell. "What I don't know is the precise nature of the relationship: third cousin? Fourth cousin? I have never claimed to be anything but a distant relation. All of this I explained to the Times reporter. How she chose to represent it was obviously up to her."

We'll take Gladwell at his word. Still, it's not uncommon for people to boast about the famous branches of their family tree -- sometimes even imaginary ones. "Most people start out wanting to be related to a famous person," says Joan Rambo, president of the Orange County, Calif., Genealogical Society. "It gives you a warm fuzzy to be related to someone important."

By the way, I recently learned I'm related to Al Pacino. The genealogy's never been done, but my half-sister swears he's a nephew of a distant cousin.

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