Most journalists seem to take it as a given that what is accurate and fair is true. But whether you agree apparently depends on what you mean by “true,” which became clear after several items in the news in the past month.
First came reports – such as this one from NPR – about “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a story drawn from the experience of John D’Agata, a writer, and Jim Fingal, who had been assigned to fact-check an essay by D’Agata. From NPR’s description:
“Ten years ago, D’Agata was in Las Vegas when a 16-year-old boy committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Tower. D’Agata wrote an essay about the tragedy — but in the telling, he took a generous amount of artistic license.”
D’Agata fudged or fabricated details large and small, and distorted timelines and sequences of events. He defended his departures from accuracy by saying his version was “more dramatic” and that his essay was written in pursuit of a greater truth, an artistic truth.
Next came the horrifying (for journalists), full-show-length retraction by public radio’s “This American Life” for running a report by writer/performer Mike Daisey about Apple’s factories in China, which, similar to D’Agata’s essay, mixed and matched facts, locations, times and events without much regard to accuracy. Although clearly remorseful in the retraction episode, he remained stubbornly insistent that his error was only one of labeling, that ultimately he conveyed a larger truth that was important for people to feel connected to.
Neither of the above episodes would have caused a ripple of alarm if either had simply been labeled fiction. Much fiction is largely based is fact. You don’t have to watch very many movies or TV shows to understand that “based on a true story” has a wide variety of meanings, from “this is nearly entirely what really happened” to (more often) “there’s a nugget of reality here, but not a lot.”
Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine summed up what I feel about the two stories:
“You need not take a journalist’s oath to tell the truth. You need only be born to a mother such as mine, who told me and my sister often–very often–that ‘there’s nothing worse than a liar.’ It worked on us. My sister became a minister and I became a journalist.”
Then a third item entered the news, giving a twist to the idea of “truth vs. accuracy.” It turned out that the season-opening scene in AMC’s “Mad Men” last month, in which men in a New York advertising firm drop paper bags filled with water onto black civil rights protesters below, was drawn directly from the facts in a 1966 New York Times story – right down to one of the protesters, after coming up to the agency to find out who was dropping water bombs on them, saying, “And they call us savages.” That line of dialog, as it turned out, came in for harsh treatment from some TV critics. Said one, “When she said that, it just rings so false.”
How much truer can you get than reality? Must you fabricate to discover truth?
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I supposed it’s appropriate that the meaning of those lines by John Keats “is disputed by everyone,” as englishhistory.net put it.
If only a journalist had been there to document what Keats intended.