Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Don't Let The Facts Get In The Way Of New Journalism

Friday's Wall Street Journal contained a interesting review of Marc Weingarten's book, The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution, by Kyle Smith called When Facts Were Beside the Point:

The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight" is a celebration of what Tom Wolfe dubbed "the New Journalism," which in the 1960s and 1970s brought to fact pieces the flair of fiction. Unfortunately it often brought the making-up-stuff part as well.

Mr. Weingarten admires writers like Mr. Wolfe (whom he credits with inspiring the book), Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Herr and Jimmy Breslin, each of whom gets one or more chapters extolling his steady rise and eventual triumph amid the barking of tight-fisted editors.

Despite Mr. Weingarten's reverent tone, close readers may find themselves growing uneasy, if not alarmed, by what he reveals. Mr. Herr, the author of the lauded Vietnam memoir "Dispatches" (1968), wrote his editor that the war "goes deeper than anything my generation has known, even deeper, I'm afraid, than Kennedy's murder. No matter when it ends or how it ends, it will leave a mark on this country like the trail of slime that a sand slug leaves." A valid opinion, possibly. But he wrote these words before he left for Vietnam. Does impartiality matter? Maybe not. New Journalists make their subjectivity part of the show. Does the reference to Kennedy's murder suggest a paranoid streak? Maybe that doesn't matter either.

But three pages later, when Mr. Herr's story about an unidentified general "seen... leaving the house of a famous courtesan" is questioned by his editor at Esquire, Mr. Herr writes back in a huff: "He's fiction -- I hoped that that would be obvious."

Huh? Yet Esquire editor Harold Hayes "signed off on it," Mr. Weingarten tells us.
What happened here? Did Esquire print these stories with a headline reading: "Warning: some facts not actually true"? How many other fictional elements appeared in the work of Mr. Herr, a man (in Mr. Weingarten's words) given to "inventing composite soldiers whose personas were stitched together from what Herr observed during many zonked-out late-night bull sessions over cheap scotch and locally procured marijuana"? Should "Dispatches," which resulted from Mr. Herr's Esquire reporting, be reshelved in the fiction department?

I read "Dispatches" some years ago and, since it was not presented as anything but straight reporting, I took it as such. Apparently this use of "composites" is a regular feature of New Journalism.

We learn that "composites" -- New Journalese for "fictional characters" -- appeared regularly in Esquire, whose "best nonfiction writers were pushing their reportage into murky territory where creative interpretation mingled with straight documentation." Ah, to push into murk: the goal of every journalist. Or do only hero-journalists get to do that? Mr. Weingarten doesn't say.

Nor does he linger on the fancies of Mr. Breslin, the author of "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," the novel that suggested Mr. Weingarten's title. Mr. Breslin's colleagues at the New York Herald Tribune believed his columns about New York street life "too good to be true"; his editor described his work as full of "wild, crazy fabulations" but continued to run it.

Remember this the next time you hear that canard about the superior credibility of the mainstream media because "they've got editors." What's truly disturbing about this "creative interpretation mingled with straight documentation" of New Journalism wasn't just that these writers were often playing fast and loose with the truth, many of these "New Journalists" were also employing these dubious techniques to push their own political agendas in hopes of "making a difference."

It isn't Mr. Weingarten's purpose to fact-check the leading journalists of the 1960s and 1970s, though some young reporter out there could make a splash doing exactly that. He is content to gather and flesh out a lot of the oft-told tales about how these scribe-gods made their names. But in his telling there seem to be two kinds of New Journalist: those, like Mr. Wolfe, Gay Talese and Ms. Didion, who write like novelists because they have done so much research that they nearly achieve a novelist's omniscience; and those who have done just enough research to cover up their lies.

I gotta believe that a young reporter (or very motivated blogger) could make just as big (if not bigger) a splash by fact-checking the leading journalists of today, especially a local columnist or two who've made careers out of their "man on the street" or more accurately "man in a bar" reporting. It would be interesting to find out if these men (and women) were actually real people or merely composites or even complete fabrications. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction's much easier to fit into your storyline.

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