The Whole Half-Truth

Illustration by Shino Arihara

A suggestion: If Jayson Blair gets hauled into court, The New York Times should get hauled in right behind him.

I offer this blanket condemnation not to flagellate the Times further for the Blair debacle, but to establish some context about truth telling that’s been largely missing from the heated discussions of the last several weeks. Jayson Blair got things wrong on purpose, and for that he should be banned from the profession. But what he actually did — fabricating and/or ripping off details of individual stories that did happen — is petty crime compared to what the Times and other big news organizations haven’t done in a while: interpret the facts. To draw the Dick Cheney–Halliburton–Bechtel configuration and then not connect the dots into a scandal is criminal negligence; to announce record-busting tax cuts and not condemn them as an openly cynical ploy for the rich in a wartime of a few rich politician’s creation is the same. Sure, columnists raise their voices, but it’s understood they’re opining rather than reporting. They are Greek choruses rather than the main players (of course, those damn choruses were always right in their predictions), so we read them less for journalistic enlightenment and more for entertainment.

When the mainstream media do interpret things and raise questions about Halliburton, etc., they tend to bury the interpretations in the back of the front section, and readers rightly assume they’re an afterthought, at most disturbing but not important. These are crimes not of truth but of emphasis that in my book are tantamount to lying; presenting an elephant as a mouse is deception, pure and simple. Blair was guilty of overemphasis and exaggeration (as well as outright plagiarism), but he was operating with a sense of drama and high stakes that his former employers could use lots more of in telling the public what it needs to know about larger truths. I suppose the Times prides itself on objectivity as a matter of course, but being fair and evenhanded has become a convenient journalistic excuse for being blasé and above political reproach. The press is supposed to be the fourth estate, a watchdog by constitutional definition, and it’s failing in its duties bigtime.

 

When I first began reporting for a living about a dozen years ago, I was consumed with the idea that I would essentially be getting paid to tell the truth. Well, to write the truth, which is quite a different thing than telling it; unless one is an orator or an oracle, the truths expressed in daily conversation are generally not the free-standing declamations associated with the highest idea of truth but one-word answers like yes and no and sure — stuff that’s frankly too mundane to print. I instinctually knew that in journalism, as in all writing endeavors, stories must be made where none naturally exists, narratives must be made from inertia, plots constructed out of the chaos of detail.

This is the kind of good tension that fuels poetry, fiction and even documentaries and essays, but newspapering was another matter: It was not only nonfiction, it was a job. It was a public service that could be violated with even a small bit of the literary or aesthetic excess that so much other writing not only accommodated but required. Unlike other writers, the journalist was not a creator of truth but merely its conduit, and to make things even more ascetic, everything frequently had to be described in a thousand words or less and turned in by 5 p.m. on a Friday. Being a poet originally, I got sweaty just thinking about the whole enterprise. I sweated in particular over what people might say if I ever misquoted them — accidentally, of course — which I assumed to be the worst thing that could happen in the business.

But my friend and mentor Ed Boyer, a veteran L.A. Times reporter who had encouraged me away from a drifty life as an adult-ed teacher into one of journalism, said I was looking at things too literally. Ed said that in his experience sources tended to quibble not with the actual words quoted but with their larger meaning; even if it turned out he had quoted them perfectly, the sources argued that these quotes were not what they meant, and it was his job to convey what they meant not just through the words, but through the presentation and execution of the whole story.

This is sometimes what people call being quoted out of context, but Ed was talking about something more encompassing: the little-discussed fact that journalism is indeed not literal but is as reliant on story as its more creative cousins — i.e., poetry, fiction. Of course, facts are at journalism’s core, but the arrangement and order and characterization of those facts, the stressing of one thing at the expense of another, is an equally essential part of its nature. It is story, but a particular kind. I decided then that the mission of journalism was truth, but also judgment — gathering information and then deciding how best, and when and where, to tell it. This is the artistry we like to deny journalism, but it’s the artistry that really gives the profession its sense of responsibility; after all, facts are merely facts until or unless someone casts them as damning, or exonerating, or liberating, or cautionary. The public needs to know, but it needs to know more what the hell all the information coming at them means — in short, what the story is.

 

Today, we have evidently become so burdened with information we have given up on its larger meanings altogether. Information has become an end in itself, which the mass media reflect in their breathless, endless competition to get a headline into print or a camera or microphone to the scene first; implications of what actually happened at the scene come second, if they come at all. Keeping up with the barnstorming Bush administration has literally accelerated the problem — press conferences to announce radical policy changes alone have proliferated at an alarming rate, especially during the Iraqi war — to the detriment of us all. The media triumphantly announce the “truth” — of tax cuts, war plans — at the precise moment when we need to know much more than that. Now more than ever we need to know what matters, who’s fudging, who’s outright lying and who’s not. Everyone in the mainstream media is guilty of this omission, including the inimitable Times.

The Times, which lately has been beating its breast over the Blair affair, thinks it has an institutional crisis on its hand. It thinks that letting Blair slip past the rigorous checks and balances of its legendary, almost military editing process is the gravest lapse of judgment it could possibly make. But if the Times brass thinks that’s the biggest blunder it’s made, if that’s the most egregious betrayal of the public trust it can come up with, then we’re all truly in one hell of a mess.

As to race in the Blair affair — I don’t mean to be evenhanded or anything — but it’s relevant to the same degree that it isn’t. Certainly Blair was given too much latitude by diversity-conscious bosses, but they were conscious of other things like talent, initiative, glibness and other qualities that give latitude to plenty of other hot-property reporters who aren’t black. Fact is, Americans like more than a little hustle in their heroes, and the line between chutzpah and crookedness is often thin, though the deciding factor is frequently color: Stephen Glass is a storyteller who simply lost sight of the boundaries, Jayson Blair a con artist (though both wound up with agents and publishing or film interest, so perhaps it all evens out in the end).

But race is a red herring that drags us back into discussions about hiring and affirmative-action policies, when the biggest fish is the haphazard notion of truth in the media. What we consider to be an absolute is anything but, and the way truth is pruned, puffed up, minimized or ignored altogether on a daily basis is a scandal that should account for about 20 pages of mea culpas in The New York Times or the Washington Post or the L.A. Times on any given day. I’m still waiting for any number of full stories to come out, from the rescue of Jessica Lynch to the nexus of corporate oil connections in the Bush administration, to the American rebuilding contracts that lay in wait for the end of the war. Of course, I’m still dumbstruck by the Florida election in 2000, which was absent enough facts and meaning to warrant at least an apology by the American paper of record. I may never get it, I know. I’m starting to think that if it’s the truth I want to tell — and hear — I’d be better off as a poet.