“Facts are stupid things,” said Ronald Reagan in one of his priceless gaffes. He meant to say what his speechwriter wrote, that facts are “stubborn things.”
Reluctantly I address the controversy that’s been raging over John D’Agata’s fictions in his nonfiction, specifically in his book About a Mountain, which deals with the federal government’s desire to entomb nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas. The topic is radioactive enough without the fallout over D’Agata’s cheerful duplicity that’s revealed in his new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, about his conflict with a fact checker over an article excerpted from About a Mountain.
I know the limitations of the “just the facts” objective journalistic style, the five Ws and the H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How, and I believe deeply in openly subjective, personal writing. But my twelve years in daily journalism, counting a year spent as a Kiplinger fellow at Ohio State, marked me in more ways than one.
When I was in newspapers, I raged sometimes against the objectivity that cruelly constrains reporters. For instance, at most daily newspapers, then and now, news reporters put their honest perceptions in the mouths of others by asking leading questions: “Miss Councilwoman, don’t you think the mayor looked haggard tonight, facing this same issue all over again?” And she says, “The mayor is weary—we’re all weary.” That’s often how reporters get their “ledes” and get their headlines—“Mayor wearies of battle”—and how they skirt the reality that a human being—someone functioning as a writer—selected and shaped the world into words, imposed meaning. An exception is columnists, who are expected to operate at the opposite extreme, as colorful personalities or even as cranky ideologues whose screeds are untainted by reportage.
The authorial persona allowed newspaper reporters is slim to none except at the biggest and best newspapers. Which is one reason I refuse to allow newspapers to define what journalism is and does. Why not The New Yorker as a model? Some commentators now call magazine articles “essays” because of greater writerly freedom to use the self overtly; in blurring genre these folks are thereby claiming that the authors of magazine articles are writers even if they are functioning also as journalists.
They are writers, of course, but so are reporters. Yet to be a journalist is fraught; there’s so much baggage. Including the fact that the objective style can allow them to dodge responsibility for what appears under their bylines: they followed the rules. A writer’s task, like anyone’s, is to become ever more human, while a “journalist’s” is to figure out what a journalist should do. And she or he is going to fail somewhere along the line as a journalist and somewhere as a person.
I was shocked when I left daily newspapers by how self-serving some objective journalism practices appeared. I’d just finished writing a long investigative series of articles about the head of a unit at the local university, which was as big as a small city, and I then went to work for a division of that institution. The embattled leader, now technically my colleague and hanging on by her fingernails, told a visiting reporter that I’d been preparing to write something favorable about her, so the university had bought me off.
The reporter called me for a response.
“You can’t believe that,” I said. “It’s obviously nonsense. It’s crazy.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But unless you comment it’s going to look bad for you.”
Outraged as I was, I almost laughed. I’d surely performed the same blackmail many times, I realized, and at last knew how it felt to be on the receiving end. Ostensibly I’d done it to “get both sides,” but really to get a better, juicier story, to get and to stoke even more conflict. If a reporter is any good, his allegiance is to the story more than to sources, especially if they’re not daily, bread-and-butter beat sources but those who stray into the news or who are obvious miscreants he’s beholden to bite in the ass.
And yet, for all that, the format and the flawed practices that served so-called objectivity had rough virtues.
The odd beauty of the objective style
I learned how strong a case you had to build and how you had to demonstrate it, show it, number by number, quote by quote. The rigor of it amazed. Strange, too, how slippery “facts” were: carefully gathered, when reassembled in your story they had to be checked again, as if they’d somehow altered when lifted from their original context and placed beside other information.
And I believed in the crusading aspect of American journalism. There’s a long tradition of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” as they say. Good newspapers reek with the desire to uncover and expose wrongdoing. As a reporter, I tried to live up to that ideal. Who else could take on politicians, bureaucrats, and corporations? Who else was supposed to? The aggression unsuited my temperament, but I was good at, and it was my job. That’s what I got paid for, won awards for.
This role of being a feedback loop to society contributes to the reduced use of persona, a restraint that bleeds even into the feature pages. The most painful lesson a young reporter learns—only by making mistakes and having to write corrections and to deal with angry readers—is how hard it is to get basic facts right. One reason is that reporters often aren’t deeply familiar with what they’re writing about. A related but deeper reason is that humans operate daily on assumptions: the downtown will not shift locations, the lover will remain true, the sun will rise in the east. But in writing, which confidently proclaims “the way it is,” natural assumptions lead to errors.
Two plus two, strangely, no longer equals four. As the old newsroom quip goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
I left daily journalism because I wanted to do longer, deeper, and much more personal work. But, as I say, I internalized some rules. Like get the basic facts right, even if—praise God!—you’re going to function as a writer in the larger sense and reveal your perspective, even your biases. I go weak with admiration when a magazine journalist reveals her passionate beliefs, even her agenda, maybe her own relevant flaws, and yet is fair to the ugly opposition.
Next: John D’Agata’s genre of one