Does Thomas Kohnstamm deserve an apology?

In an interview posted late yesterday at World Hum, Lonely Planet author Thomas Kohnstamm explains how he’s unwittingly found himself at the center of an unexpected controversy.

The author, who was quoted by dozens of newspapers over the weekend admitting to all kinds of guidebook-writing malfeasance, says that the situation has been “blown way out of proportion.” In fact, Kohnstamm claims, he wasn’t guilty of anything besides accepting a few comps and doing a bit of hotel and restaurant research on the internet instead of in person.

Several days ago, before the World Hum interview, I wrote an oft-cited post calling Kohnstamm a fraud and expressing outrage at his behavior. Now that Kohnstamm has backtracked from his previous statements, does he deserve an apology?

Well, yes and no. Kohnstamm certainly was not guilty of all the charges leveled at him, and some of the criticism he received was unfair. He doesn’t appear to be a massive plagiarizer of the Jayson Blair ilk, and I’d wager he’s far from the devil he’s been made out to be, here and elsewhere. Also, it probably would have been prudent for me to contact him before writing the “fraud” post to see if he was quoted correctly, even though he doesn’t dispute that he was.

With all that said, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Kohnstamm, since he was the one responsible for bringing up these charges in the first place. He repeatedly gave his interviewer the impression that he was a veritable “bad boy” of travel writing, saying, for example, of his agreement with Lonely Planet regarding the Colombia guidebook:

“They didn’t pay me enough to go (to) Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating-an intern in the Colombian Consulate.”

Clearly, Kohnstamm’s implication is that he was supposed to visit Colombia, but the misers at Lonely Planet were too cheap to make it worthwhile. Turns out, as Justin reported yesterday, Kohnstamm and LP agreed that he wouldn’t visit Colombia, as he was responsible only for writing the history, environment, food and drink, and culture sections of the book. So why make that explicit to the interviewer? Easy: because that’s not interesting, and it doesn’t move books.

Now, Kohnstamm is calling his Colombia claim “regrettable” and “an unfortunate choice of words.” Hard to argue with that.

His situation now is a bit like that of the college guy on Spring Break who lies to his buddies, telling them that he cheated on his girlfriend with a gorgeous, blonde 19-year-old. When the news eventually makes it back to the girlfriend– as it always does– he’s in the unenviable position of having to explain that before he was lying, but now he’s telling the truth.

As for the claim that he accepted “comps” from hotels and restaurants, he says that’s true, but he tried to avoid doing it as much as possible. Frankly, I can’t work up much outrage over this, and I’d never condemn a guidebook author for taking a discount here and there– as long as they aren’t in exchange for positive reviews. Kohnstamm is right that these guys don’t get paid much, and hell, I’d probably take a discount or two myself. (Gadling credentials, anyone?)

All this doesn’t leave me feeling as if I have much to apologize for, I must say. Look back at my original post, and I’ll stand by what I wrote: Self-promotion? Entitlement? Decreasing the reputation of LP and its hard-working writers? As Elvis used to say, I’ll take all of the above with a side order of more.

But wait, does Kohnstamm even want an apology? Probably not. He just wants everybody to forget about this. But oh yeah, remember to buy his book.