By Ray Schultz
Abraham Lincoln was in a good mood as he got ready to go to the theater. The war was over, he’d shown the Rebels. He threw back a shot of bourbon. Now it was time for some fun.
Now, what’s wrong with that paragraph, besides the fact that it’s a total fabrication? Two things. First, it trivializes a tragic historical event. Second, there’s no way to know what Abraham Lincoln was thinking.
Still, I expect some writer to concoct a scene like this because that’s what the market demands (or so we’re told). We’ve entered the era of storytelling. And there’s no room for anything that slows down the narrative–like truth or attributions.
Maybe they’re right. But since most narrative I see moves slowly anyway (some of it is interminable, in fact) I’d just as soon we return to the journalistic basics. There are worse things than being dull and honest.
An Inexact Science
H.L. Mencken of Baltimore was 19 or so when he “took in the massive fact that journalism is not an exact science.” A rival reporter named de Bekker, rather than leave his barstool to report on a stevedore’s death, made up the facts on the spot, starting with the deceased’s name.
“Who gives a damn what it was?” de Bekker asked the two young competitors who were drinking with him. “The fact that another poor man has given his life to engorge the Interests is not news: it happens every ten minutes. The important thing here, the one thing that brings us vultures of the press down into this godforsaken wilderness is that the manner of his death was unusual–that men are not kicked overboard by mules every day. I move you, my esteemed contemporaries, that the name of the deceased be Ignaz Karpinski, that the name of his widow be Marie, that his age was thirty-six, that he lived at 1777 Fort avenue, and that he leaves eleven minor children.”
All three journalists present reported those sad facts, “along with various lively details that occurred to de Bekker after he had got down another beer,” Mencken recalled. And since their accounts were identical, they were applauded by their editors the next day for their unusual accuracy.
Making up facts is the cardinal sin of journalism. And while it was charming in Mencken’s telling, it’s now a surefire career destroyer (except in the blogosphere).
Another form of journalistic distortion is found in posed news photos, and in Time Inc.’s old March of Time documentaries. Case in point: Time’s 1938 feature on life inside Nazi Germany. In one scene, storm troopers collect money from ordinary Germans. Another shows nuns in a prison cell. But both scenes were shot in Hoboken, New Jersey, as I learned during a panel discussion at MOMA featuring Time archivist Bill Hooper.
The New Journalism
Does that mean that March of Time’s stepchildren, TV shows like 60 Minutes, fake their coverage? Uh, I didn’t say that… But the more daring the storytelling, the more careful one has to be about adhering to the journalistic rules.
This issue was hotly debated during the era of the so-called “New Journalism.” Not that it was a new idea, but reporters like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin showed that non-fiction could be written in narrative form like fiction. To do it, they had to find what Wolfe called the “objective correlative”—the telling detail.
One seminal example of the genre is Breslin’s 1963 article, A Death in Emergency Room One. The beginning:
The call bothered Malcolm Perry. ‘Dr. Tom Shires, STAT,’ the girl’s voice said over the page in the doctor’s cafeteria at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The ‘STAT’ meant emergency. Nobody ever called Tom Shires, the hospital’s chief resident in surgery, for an emergency. And Shires, Perry’s superior, was out of town for the day. Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.
“‘This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires’ page,’ he said.
“‘President Kennedy has been shot. STAT,’ the operator said. “They are bringing him into the emergency room now.
Perry hung up and walked quickly out of the cafeteria and down a flight of stairs and pushed through a brown door and a nurse pointed to Emergency Room One, and Dr. Perry walked into it. The room is narrow and has gray tiled walls and a cream-colored ceiling. In the middle of it, on an aluminum hospital cart, the President of the United States had been placed on his back and he was dying while a huge lamp glared in his face.
To read that piece even now is to feel the enormity of the event. But Breslin wasn’t in the emergency room as it unfolded (nor in the cafeteria)—that scene is, to the best of my knowledge, based on interviews with participants. Yet it was published within 48 hours of the assassination.
In another powerful story, Breslin profiled an unemployed Vietnam vet, a Congressional Medal of Honor holder, who had crawled through enemy fire to save wounded fellow solders. The hero’s life unravels as older men at the VFW ply him with drinks.
Were these accurate depictions? They apparently were, but they couldn’t have been easy to do, given that facts don’t always lend themselves to narrative. Even time sequences have to be exact, as writer Janet Malcolm found out—she was criticized for a scene in which the subject says in person things he actually said later on the phone.
Then there’s the ever-present threat of libel. No wonder Breslin and Wolfe sought a larger canvas—in fiction.
In Cold Blood
Truman Capote moved in the opposite direction. His book, “In Cold Blood,” on the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas, was the world’s first nonfiction novel, he claimed.
It doesn’t matter what it was called. This was narrative the way it should be done, as you can tell from the very first paragraph:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’ Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
Capote, one of our finest prose writers, finished the book with a scene that brought closure to the story: The detective who worked on the case encounters a friend of one of the victims in the cemetery. “The message is clear: life continues even amidst death,” wrote Capote’s biographer, Gerald Clarke.
The only problem is that it never happened. Unethical? Most journalists would say so. But, as Norman Mailer observed at the time, “Truman must have his tone.”
Sorry, Kid, You’re No Truman Capote
Some might wink at Capote’s transgression—he wrote an American classic. But consider what has followed. These days, everything has to be written like fiction, even history, yet few writers have Capote’s gift for narrative or Breslin’s flair or reportorial doggedness.
Writers must now entertain above all else. Serious topics take on a storybook quality—it’s almost as if readers lack the attention spans to handle more complex forms of information. But not everything can be dramatic or entertaining.
At least a few journalistic malefactors—those caught making up stories—were driven by this need to startle and/or amuse, I believe. Not that this makes it forgivable—or even sensible. Few writers can invent anything better than what happens in reality.
Egregious factual liberties are also taken, I suspect, with that staple of self-help magazine articles: The composite character. They are simply not believable. How can you check?
Then there’s plagiarism. Some well-known historians have been caught using almost identical language to that of other writers. I wonder if they left out attributions that should have gone in because they got in the way of the story.
In narrative, as in all other forms of nonfiction writing, there are no substitutes for precision and clarity.