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?

Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Christopher Newton all fabricated details—mundane and spectacular—in their journalism. But why? Reaching for the simplest explanation, I previously wrote that fabulists make stuff up because they don't have the talent or industry to produce copy grand enough to satisfy their egos.

But if we agree that hacks and loafers resort to lies because they don't know how else to make great journalism, what can we say about reporters from the Pantheon who marbled their journalism with fiction? I'm thinking of H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell, all of whom made stuff up. None of them suffered much in the way of reputation injury when their inventions were discovered. What sort of double standard is this?

H.L. Mencken
H.L. Mencken

The most egregious prevaricator was Mencken. In the second volume of his memoirs, Newspaper Days, Mencken gleefully confesses to concocting stories at the turn of the century while working as a young city reporter for the Baltimore Herald. When the Herald promoted him to the City Hall beat, Mencken and the American's reporter asked the Sun's City Hall guy if he would like to pool his reporting with them in the name of efficiency. (Mencken had just left a similar arrangement on his previous beat.) When the Sun reporter resisted, Mencken and his pal on the American planted fake stories in their papers "with refinements of detail that coincided perfectly, so all the city editors in town … accepted it as gospel." Mencken and his pal steadily escalated "from one fake a day to two, and then to three, four, and even more," making the Sun editors think the American and Herald were consistently beating their reporter. Finally, the Sun reporter relented and joined the pool.

Elsewhere in Newspaper Days, Mencken brags of publishinga Page One story in the Herald in 1905 about the outcome of a naval battle between Japan and Russia—two weeks before the authentic results were known. Luckily for Mencken, he correctly imagined Tokyo the winner. He also brags of publishing weekly stories about a Baltimore "wild man" he invented.

A.J. Liebling
A.J. Liebling 

Some may excuse Mencken, arguing that journalistic standards were less rigorous back then. Or they might say most of Mencken's crimes against truth were inconsequential practical jokes. But by 1925, newspaper standards were sufficiently strict enough that the New York Times fired the 21-year-old A.J. Liebling from its copy desk for pranking a Times reporter. According to Raymond Sokolov's Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling, the young Liebling, working on the copy desk, changed another reporter's byline, swapping the middle name "Patrick" for the more officious sounding "Parnell."

That's not how Liebling told the tale of his Times dismissal. Instead, he doctored this true story: While working the copy desk, he substituted the name "Ignoto" (Italian for "unknown") as the referee's name in high-school basketball line scores when he couldn't locate the real ref's name. Although he pulled the Ignoto prank only twice, he later claimed to have subbed Ignoto repeatedly ("I had Ignoto refereeing a lot of basketball games all around town"), adding that the Times fired him after catching him. Over time, the Ignoto version of Liebling's sacking became the official account, with the New York Times publishing it as truth in his obituary.

Liebling's impulse to embroider and improve never left him. In the early '30s at the New York World-Telegram, he invented characters ("Asa Wood"; "Elmer Chipling") and spooned into their mouths whatever dialogue he wanted to attribute to the man on the street, sometimes giving readers no sense that he might be invoking artistic license. In the early '50s, Liebling went further in this direction with his New Yorker profile of Manhattan character Colonel John R. Stingo, gilding the racing columnist's persona. Sokolov writes:

Stingo was the last and most elaborately conceived of the many foils Liebling had used over the years to represent himself in print. … Stingo existed, but Liebling put words and stories in his mouth.

You might say this technique is almost Glassian. Knowing that Liebling fiddled with Stingo's character casts suspicion on the mountain of literary journalism he produced.

Joseph Mitchell
Joseph Mitchell

Liebling's colleague at the World-Telegram and New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell, also diluted fact with fib. In the mid-'40s, he wrote three New Yorker pieces about New York's Fulton Fish Market, which were presented as fact. Only when the stories were collected as a book, Old Mr. Flood, in 1948 did Mitchell offer this disclaimer: "Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past." In a 1992 article, the New Criterion catalogs a few of his embellishments: Mitchell assigned Flood his own birthday, July 27; his "gustatory predilections"; his love for the Bible; his high regard for Mark Twain; his taste for columnist Heywood Broun; and his affection for all things old.