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.

If we insist on banishing Blair, Glass, Newton, and all the other confessed composite artists and embellishers (Michael Finkel, Christopher Jones, Jay Forman, Nik Cohn, Rodney Rothman) from journalism, why do we still honor Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell?

The first leaky argument goes like this: Standards have changed—yesterday's readers didn't care if stories were some amalgam of truth and imagination. But that point doesn't ring true. If earlier readers didn't care if writers mixed malarkey with fact, why didn't publishers oblige them by hiring novelists and printing plausible fiction instead of fact? It would have been cheaper.

Also, standards weren't so lax in the old days that Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell could fabricate at will. Remember, all three kept their deceptions secret, at least for a time. And none made up a passage that could be easily uncovered. Yes, the inventions of these three literary journalists are different from those of Stephen Glass. But theirs quickly bump into his on their trip down the slippery slope.

The second leaky argument goes like this: Time tempers outrage. Viewed through history's window, Mitchell appears to be a frustrated fiction writer, and Mencken and Liebling seem like scamps rather than felons for making things up. But journalism has long posited a set of rules that essentially say: Build a narrative or argument out of a set of collected facts, and don't double-cross the reader with flights of fantasy, no matter how noble your goal. If I were king, I'd affix large, bloody scarlet asterisks aside the names Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell. And why not? If you're going to ticket a bum like Glass for reckless writing, shouldn't you ticket a god like Mencken for doing the same thing?

All fabricators share a common motive: They want to make their story better than the plain truth, which they think gives them license to blend characters into a composite, pipe in dialogue, and edit events into a more logical narrative. If the truth refuses to collaborate, they conjure up something more compelling. The leading exponent of this school of journalism was New Yorker staff writer Alastair Reid. In 1984, the Wall Street Journal reported that Reid had constructed numerous composite characters in his nonfiction New Yorker pieces, rearranging events and scenes and inventing conversations. A translator and a poet as well as a nonfiction writer, Reid rationalized every one of his embellishments.

"The implication that fact is precious isn't important," Reid told the Journal. "Some people [at The New Yorker] write very factually. I don't write that way. ... Facts are only a part of reality."

Reid went on and on in this vein, justifying his embellishments to the Journal:

If one wants to write about Spain, the facts won't get you anywhere. …

If you're writing a piece in the first person, you quite often put your own questions in the mouth of someone else. …

You have to get over this hump that it's fact or else. … There is a truth that is harder to get at and harder to get down towards than the truth yielded by fact. …

There's no attempt to distort facts [in composite scenes]. What this perception does is to combine facts. …

Joseph Mitchell anticipated Reid's grandiosity and self-regard in defending his Fulton Fish Market composite, writing in the preface to the book version, "I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts." This caveat reveals Mitchell's disdain for the quotidian truths of newspapers. One suspects that Liebling's willingness to bend genres hails from the same territory. Reid spoke for all the arty fabricators working inside journalism when he told the Journal, "Readers who are factual-minded are the readers who are least important."

At first, New Yorker Editor William Shawn defended Reid: "I trust him completely, and he's not trying to deceive anybody, including me." But eventually Shawn retreated, conceding to his publisher that Reid had "violated New Yorker principles. He made a journalistic mistake. He was wrong. The editors of The New Yorker do not condone what he did."

Fabricating a terrific story and ferreting out the amazing truth both require imagination, though I wouldn't equate the two. In the first case, it takes some creativity to cook up something that is both interesting and plausible. In the second, finding a good (true) story and exploiting it properly requires a kind of imagination that most reporters just call "a hunch." Where the two schools of imagination part, of course, is when the fabricator writes what he wishes were true—or what he believes to be true, in some platonic sense—even if he hasn't found the evidence. Meanwhile, the honest reporter gives up when the evidence or facts he's looking for evade him, or he reconceptualizes and starts again.

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."

******

Spotted a fabulous fabulism not mentioned here? E-mail pressbox@hotmail.com.

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