Last week, Medium editor Arikia Millikan published a bizarre essay about an “important war correspondent” who gave her a “red-blooded introduction to journalism” by drinking with her, seducing her, maybe sleeping with her, and telling her all of his secrets—including marital infidelity and a suicide attempt involving a shotgun. It’s supposedly a story of how “Tom Random,” the name she gives her famous mentor, exploited Millikan’s naiveté. Turns out that most or all of it is horseshit, and its author won’t say what—if anything—actually happened.
Medium’s billionaire founder, Ev Williams, hasn’t hidden his journalistic ambitions for the tastefully-designed site, so we decided to go looking for the identity of “Tom Random,” and quickly found that the essay’s details suggested that “Tom Random” could be Dexter Filkins, the former New York Times correspondent and current New Yorker staff writer. Many in New York’s media circles came to the same conclusion.
(Some clues, for instance: The illustration that graces the Medium essay is actually based on a well-known photo of Filkins that ran in Vanity Fair—requiring Millikan to note that the “image bears no relation to the subject” at the bottom of the post. And Millikan, whose LinkedIn profile describes her as a former “science and technology” researcher for Nate Silver at the time he was shacked up at the Times, writes that she used to “fantasize about walking over from [her] post as science intern” to say hi to her mentor, who apparently sat near Millikan’s favorite columnist.)
When we asked Millikan, however, she denied that he was Filkins. When we noted all the clues that seemed to point to him, Millikan explained the liberties she took with her story: She changed some, or all, of the details.
Nowhere in her essay does Millikan disclose that she altered any details pertaining to “Tom Random”—a fairly normal custom when writing about individuals while trying to protect their identity, and essentially obligatory when the alterations are substantial.
But on Friday she told Gawker that she altered multiple significant details about “Random” and her relationship with him. During the same conversation, she refused to disclose the nature or scope of the fictions she introduced.
“I changed the details so that nobody could figure out who he was,” Millikan said. “Lots of people contacted me and said, Wow, this is a lot like something that happened to me, I wonder if it’s the same person.” Via email, she added, “He clearly has enough problems in his life.... And anyway I didn’t write this for revenge. Mostly just for peace of mind.”
As for the illustration, she says: “I literally just typed ‘war correspondent’ into Google image search, found that pic and liked it, and tweaked it out in Photoshop as much as I could to distort it without losing the shape of the buildings in back.”
OK, it wasn’t Filkins. But Millikan declined to stand by any of the elements of the story that we asked about—including those she presents as documentary evidence. She declined to say, for example, whether she changed the language of her IM chats with “Tom Random,” which she quotes at length. Nor would she confirm whether crucial details were based in reality.
Did “Tom Random” actually separate from his wife? Did “Tom Random” actually report from Baghdad? Was “Tom Random” an “important war correspondent” in the first place? Millikan wouldn’t say.
“This person could have been one of a hundred people, and it probably is,” the author explained. Later, via email, she added: “You’re wasting your time and my coworkers’ time. Please be professional.”
“Medium expects all of our paid contributors to meet accepted journalistic standards,” a representative for the site told Gawker. “We stand by her story.”
Filkins did not respond to multiple emails.
Update: After this post was published, Millikan removed the photo of Filkins from her essay without noting why. (Citing copyright infringement, the photographer, Ashley Gilbertson, asked Millikan to remove the photo on Twitter.)