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Fabricating is never journalism, old or new

June 08, 2003|DAVID SHAW

Janet Cooke. Mike Barnicle. Patricia Smith. Stephen Glass. Jayson Blair. The roll call of journalists who have played fast and loose with the truth was, I suspect, a significant factor in a recent poll that found 62% of the American public now think the news media are "often inaccurate" -- a figure almost double that from 20 years ago.

I recognize some of the forces that have turned a few journalists into liars. Ambition. Competition. Fear. Laziness. The lure of fame and fortune. But I think it all began, in a sense, in the 1960s and early '70s, with the advent of what quickly came to be called "new journalism" -- or New Journalism, as some of its more self-important adherents liked to think of it.

The basic theory behind new journalism, as practiced and promulgated by such brilliant prose stylists as Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, among others, was that the tools and techniques of fiction could be adapted to nonfiction -- to journalism -- to make it more compelling.

That meant that instead of the straightforward, "just the facts, ma'am" kind of story in which bits of information were related in descending order of importance, practitioners of new journalism wrote narrative story lines, with a beginning and a middle and an end, and good pacing in between, much like a novel or a short story. They also depicted their characters as characters -- not just names and titles appended to quotes, but full-fledged characters, complete with detailed physical descriptions and, often, psychological analyses.

In the new journalism, and its "narrative journalism" and "literary journalism" offspring, these characters were often depicted as speaking not in isolated quotations but in dialogue among themselves -- dialogue that the writer frequently did not actually hear firsthand. In other instances, these writers relied heavily on personal observation at close quarters, often injecting themselves into the action and the resultant story.

In the hands of veteran journalists possessed of both skill and integrity -- and a solid grounding in the fundamental principles of journalism -- this approach led to inspired, illuminating stories, in newspapers, magazines and books alike.

I can still remember reading with awe "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's stunning "nonfiction novel" on the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan. And I can remember Talese's remarkable magazine profiles of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis. In this very newspaper, 23 years later, I can still remember Rick Meyer's poignant and evocative "The Story of Michael: A Child of the Watts Riot."

But in the hands of less experienced, less principled writers, new journalism simply provided temptation and license. After all, it's easier to invent a quote that makes the point you want to make -- and makes it colorfully, even provocatively -- than it is to find the five or 10 people who know something about your subject, go interview them individually and hope that at least one will give you a usable (never mind colorful or provocative) quote.

And it's certainly easier to create a colorful character -- or, better (?) -- a composite character who embodies all the traits necessary to make your story come alive than it is to talk to several sources, all of whom may turn out to be boring talking heads.

The urge to embellish

Back in the early 1970s, in the heyday of new journalism, I decided to write a story on the poker parlors of Gardena, which then offered the only legalized gambling in Los Angeles County. I had seen an aunt and uncle spend hour after hour, day after day, week after week at the gaming tables there, and I knew that if I hung around long enough, I'd get a good story.

After a couple of weeks of reporting, I happened to mention my story to a colleague, who turned out to be more -- shall we say -- creatively inclined than I. He immediately told me how he thought I should write the story.

"Take all those different people you met, all those colorful nicknames you mentioned -- 'Ma' and 'Stumpy' and 'Loose Frank' and 'Dirty-Mouth Paula' -- and write a story about one big showdown poker game, with you and all of them at one table. You could even combine a couple of the people into one. You could.... "

He was getting so excited that I decided to stop him before tachycardia set in. But when I tried to explain that his proposed scenario would make "a splendid idea for a short story or a novel or a movie, but it's not journalism," he looked at me as if it were I who had taken leave of my senses.

I like to think it was my personal ethics that kept me from writing what my erstwhile colleague called "a 'Cincinnati Kid' kind of piece." But I also realize that I'm not creative or imaginative enough to write a short story or a novel or a screenplay. I'm a journalist by temperament as well as profession. So I've never been tempted to fictionalize my reporting. I couldn't if I wanted to. And I've never wanted to.

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