The fabulous fabulists.

Media criticism.
June 12 2003 5:39 PM

The Fabulous Fabulists

Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell made stuff up, too. Why do we excuse them?

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It takes mental energy to tell and retell the truth. As anybody who's ever told a story knows, it's hard to resist the human impulse to "improve" a tale once you get going, whether you've bellied up to the bar or are recounting the day's events at home. The inviting plasticity of the narrative form encourages the Glass and Blair in all of us, and unless you're giving sworn testimony or writing a news story, it doesn't matter if you embellish most stories. Those of us with observant colleagues—or spouses or children or parents—know that hardly anybody ever tells the same story the same way twice. And if you get away with stretching a tale once, you're likely to add a few inches the next time.

Mencken acted on this impulse by continuing to write and publish fakes after conscripting the Sun reporter into his reporting pool. "Our flames of fancy having been fanned, we couldn't shut them off at once," he maintains in Newspaper Days. The wholly improbable fakes they farmed out to a reporter on a German-language newspaper, planting there "an outbreak of yellow fever in the City Jail."

There is a way to write about a truthfulness that isn't factual—this can take the form of a literary essay or fiction. But genre categories exist for a reason. News depends on fact as well as truthfulness. Indeed, truthfulness in news can't exist in absence of fact.

Telling the truth is a learned skill, and the best time to teach it is when the subject is young—either in school or in the first day on the job. It's no accident that so many of the recent journalistic prevaricators—Glass, Blair, Jones, Finkel, Forman—were young when apprehended. As my friend Jonathan Chait points out, journalism unmasks most fact-futzers when they're young, leaving few to age into old journalists.

Facts aren't the enemy of truth. And any writer's claim that he serves a "higher truth" by contriving people, places, events, conversations, and the rest should move his enterprise to the fiction stacks. Not only is it wrong to make stuff up, it's not even necessary. "In general, I don't subscribe to the theory that you can kind of improve on the facts," Calvin Trillin told the Journal during the Reid uproar. "Otherwise, I'd do it."

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.