Tom Kludt, CNN Money, December 15, 2014
It didn’t take long for New York Magazine’s story on a 17-year-old stock whiz with a rumored net worth of $72 million to make a splash. But the story’s juicy premise unraveled almost as quickly.
Jessica Pressler wrote the profile of Mohammed Islam, a senior at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, for a feature called “Reasons to Love New York.”
After getting an advanced look at Pressler’s piece, the New York Post put the improbable story on its Sunday front page. By Monday morning, Islam’s story was one of the hottest on Facebook.
Then it fell apart. In an interview with the New York Observer published Monday night, Islam admitted that he fabricated the whole story and has never actually made a return on any investment. “So it’s total fiction?” asked the Observer. “Yes,” Islam said.
Early Monday, CNBC’s Josh Brown wondered if Islam was duping “an overly eager press willing to believe.”
Pressler, who will be joining a financial investigative unit at Bloomberg News early next year, takes exception to Brown’s characterization.
“I still think the piece is skeptical enough,” she told CNNMoney early Monday afternoon. “The story says, ‘This is a rumor and draw your own conclusions.'”
In the New York Magazine story, Pressler wrote that the amount of money is “unbelievable,” though she also said “as rumors go, this one seemed legit.” Later, Pressler wrote that Islam “confirmed his net worth is in the ‘high eight figures.'”
She said Islam provided a bank statement to a New York magazine fact-checker, and that the teen does have “an obscene amount of money in his account.”
Pressler said the problem stemmed from the story’s original headline: “A Stuyvesant senior made $72 million trading stocks on his lunch break.”
Pressler said she didn’t write it. “I feel like the headline was pretty glib–I feel comfortable about what’s in the actual piece.”
Business Insider did its own reporting on Monday, eventually learning from an unnamed “source familiar with the story” that the figure was off the mark. Islam’s high school Investment Club told Business Insider it performed “due dilligence” and discovered that “these claims are false” and had been hyped by “the media in the interests of sensationalism.”
Islam then splashed cold water on the figure himself, telling CNBC on Monday that he doesn’t even know who started the rumor. He also took issue with Pressler’s write-up. “The way we were portrayed is not who we are,” CNBC quoted him as saying.