Story about scorned dentist appears to be a hoax

Were you among the millions of people who gasped in horror -- and maybe a little glee -- at the story of the scorned dentist who yanked out her ex-lover’s teeth in revenge? Turns out the story appears to be a hoax. And among those who fell for it? Yours truly, and the Los Angeles Times.

On May 1, I wrote how the story of a vengeful dentist in Poland named Anna Mackowiak was richocheting around the Internet and setting social media channels on fire. On Facebook alone, it was shared thousands upon thousands of times. The Times’ blog posting quoted from and linked to the original story, which was published online at the popular British newspaper the Daily Mail.

Today, MSNBC said the story was a hoax that was picked up and repeated by countless news sites and blogs including the Huffington Post, MSN and the Washington Post. If you go back and look at many of those stories, you’ll find that they have been quietly corrected. (You can see our story, which has been corrected as well, at left.)

So how did this happen? There’s no easy answer. But this much is clear. After the story made the rounds in early May, the rest of the media moved on. Except for MSNBC. That outlet, smelling something fishy, contacted law enforcement authorities in Wroclaw, Poland.

MSNBC reports that “a spokesman said they had no record of such an incident.” Moreover, a legal advisor for Poland’s Chamber of Physicians and Dentists said they also had not been alerted to such a case, and had no record of a dentist named Anna Mackowiak.

MSNBC also turned to the Daily Mail newspaper for answers and contacted the writer whose name appeared on the original story. But staff reporter Simon Tomlinson told MSNBC that he also did not know where it came from. “I’ve drawn a bit of a blank,” MSNBC quoted Tomlinson as saying, and adding: “My news desk isn’t sure where exactly it came from.”

The story is no longer available on the Mail’s website. It included a great level of detail and even purported to quote the two people at the center of the dispute: Mackowiak and her ex-boyfriend.

No doubt, journalism watchdogs will rightfully point to the episode as a cautionary tale of what can happen when journalists like me are sitting at a keyboard, trying to keep up with fast-breaking news and a 24-hour news cycle that just doesn’t quit.

Kudos to MSNBC for taking the time and making the effort to follow the story behind the story. No matter how fast the news is breaking, there’s always time to find out the truth.