Michel Thomas vs. The Los Angeles Times
Michel Thomas led one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th Century, as chronicled in British author Christopher Robbins' 2000 book Test of Courage. Thomas grew up in pre-war Germany and France, becoming a talented linguist. During World War II, he narrowly survived deportation to Auschwitz, where his family was murdered. He was imprisoned for two years in four Vichy French concentration camps, but escaped and became a leader in the French Resistance's Secret Army, where he served for two years, then fought in the U.S. infantry and with the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). After WWII, Thomas moved to America and became a language teacher to generations of diplomats, business executives, universities, celebrities, and even the children of the Watts riots. He lives today in New York City, but spent most of his years since 1947 in Los Angeles.
The biography was favorably reviewed in a number of U.S. newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. However, in early 2001 a humor columnist at the Los Angeles Times named Roy Rivenburg assumed the role of "investigative journalist" and spent three months researching Thomas's life, then wrote a three-thousand word profile purporting to debunk him as a fraud. Published on the front page of the Times' features section on April 15, 2001, "Larger Than Life" called into question a number of the major accomplishments of Michel's life, clearly implying that he was a liar and a charlatan.
To those who would say that such is the rough-and-tumble of a life in the public eye, we beg to differ. The Sunday Times article reached a far larger audience than Michel's biography. Mr. Rivenburg's article successfully accomplished its purpose - to destroy Michel's reputation and belittle his extraordinary achievements, particularly in the community in which Michel spent most of his adult life.
To do so, Rivenburg ignored a mountain of documentation, and failed even to mention his interview of one of Michel's surviving CIC colleagues, Dr. Ted Kraus, who recounted their wartime service together in detail. Instead, Rivenburg, offered quotations from "authoritative" sources, even though none of them had personal knowledge of Michel or his wartime and postwar experiences; several of these sources later stated that, had they been fully informed of key information known to Mr. Rivenburg, their responses would have been very different. They have signed statements on Michel's behalf confirming this. The full text of the letters from these sources are available on this web site at the link "What The Experts Say Now."
A Documented History of Extraordinary Accomplishment
Among Michel's wartime and postwar accomplishments that Mr. Rivenburg ignored, denied, or distorted were:
While serving as an Agent of the CIC, Michel:
A Devastating Impact and a Legal Challenge
The article had an immediate and devastating effect on Michel's life. People who had known him for years suddenly did not return his calls, organizations he had been associated with for decades grew cool. The Times published a few indignant letters protesting the article, including one by Ted Kraus, but most people did not want to get involved. Branded a fraud by his home-town newspaper, Michel was faced with the prospect of trying to clear the high legal bar that protects the First Amendment rights of the press, or allowing the poison sown by the Times to seep into the fabric of his life.
Michel hired an experienced Los Angeles defamation lawyer, Anthony Glassman, who demanded a retraction from the LA Times. The Times refused, and Michel filed a defamation suit. He has spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal and investigative fees, locating former CIC and Army colleagues from WWII, or their widows, a number of whom filed Declarations on his behalf, and supplementing the already extensive documentation of the biography with even more incontrovertible evidence of his wartime record. In spite of all the evidence Michel has compiled from witnesses, Army records, and documents found in the National Archives, his case was dismissed without even the opportunity to bring it before a jury.
The media lawyers for the LA Times succeeded in getting the case dismissed on First Amendment grounds before any pretrial discovery, by utilizing the so-called anti-SLAPP laws originally enacted in California to protect the First Amendment rights of political and environmental activists against the well-funded legal assaults of large corporations.
Michel is now appealing the dismissal of his case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. An expedited hearing on his case is set for August 6th in Pasadena, California. If he prevails, he may finally get the chance to put his case before a jury. But he has no guarantee of winning the appeal, and the article has gone unanswered for more than a year. At the time of the launch of this web site, the L.A. Times's smear remains the most prominent commentary published in recent years on Michel's life.
Setting the Record Straight
Having witnessed Michel's frustrating struggle to correct what we view as a gross injustice, the Friends of Michel Thomas are determined to clear his name, to present the facts in the court of public opinion, and to set the record straight.
Since the article appeared in May 2001, investigators working on behalf of Michel and his attorney have compiled extremely detailed documentation proving that the implications of Roy Rivenburg's article are false. These materials include historical documents, witness Declarations, and detailed letters from sources quoted in the article who describe how they were misled by Mr. Rivenburg. Copies of these documents are posted on this web site.
We realize that this extraordinary effort to defend a man's honor is highly unusual. But Michel's friends are outraged that a baseless smear on a man of such integrity and courage could go unanswered. Michel Thomas miraculously survived the searing holocaust of the Nazi extermination of his people, and fought heroically against it. Hitler did not succeed in destroying Michel Thomas. We will not allow the L.A. Times to destroy his reputation.