Truth or Truthiness?

There's a new book coming out called The Lifespan of a Fact. It's about an essay that was assigned to a fact-checker - and written by both the writer and the fact-checker.

Harpers excerpted some of their exchanges:

FINGAL: There’s no mention of this accident in the archives of either the Las Vegas Review-Journal or the Las Vegas Sun, the two major papers in the city. John, do you have a source for this?
D’AGATA: I heard about this from a woman I interviewed at the Aztec Inn, which is across the street from the Stratosphere.
FINGAL: Can you send me a copy of your notes from this interview?
D’AGATA: I didn’t keep notes from the interview. I just relied on my memory of what she told me. Besides, this wasn’t a formal interview. I was just wandering around the Stratosphere trying to gather information.
FINGAL: To be honest, I suspect your casual interviewing strategy is going to be a problem.
D’AGATA: Well it might be a problem, but with all due respect, it’s your problem, Jim, not mine. I’m not a reporter, and I have no interest in pretending to be a reporter or in producing journalism. Also, even if this had been a formal interview, I still wouldn’t have taken extensive notes, because I tend to be casual whenever I’m interviewing people so that they feel more comfortable with me. The minute you take out a tape recorder or a notebook during an interview people get self-conscious and start “performing” for you, watching what they say and how they say it.
FINGAL: Well, OK… I guess… but this still seems to violate about ten different rules of journalistic integrity.
D’AGATA: I’m not sure that matters, Jim. This is an essay, so journalistic rules don’t belong here.


You can read more of the excerpts here here.

I'm not sure if I agree with the writer of the essay when he says that "The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as “facts.”" Maybe I'm naive, but when I read an essay, I assume it is factual. But as the excerpts show, that's slippery. Does it really matter that there are 31 strip clubs, but the author chose 34 because he thought it sounded better?



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I saw this in Harper's. Having heard several essayists/memoirists speak in person, it's my impression that there has long been a convention in creative nonfiction to be--well, creative. To compress events and make composites of people, to rearrange the order in which things happened. The point is a streamlined or less confusing narrative with more impact. I think many writers did this as a matter of course; it was a convention of the genre and they didn't think anything of it. And I think some writers have been surprised to discover recently that many people expect all nonfiction to be as literally true in every detail as a newspaper account or testimony under oath.

This Harper's article captured that debate perfectly in microcosm, because the author and the fact-checker were clearly working from two completely different worldviews and sets of expectations. It's an interesting question: how creative can creative nonfiction be?

Sometimes it's a relief to be a fiction writer.
Another thing that struck me about the conversation is I would assume the fact checker is lower on the totem pole, yet I felt like he held his ground well.
The disparity was quite evident in their exchange. What I couldn't tell was, if the checker couldn't clear all the facts, did that mean the article simply wouldn't go to print? Or would they print it anyway, with unchecked statements? The answers to those questions would definitely swing power one way or the other.