The Discerning Eye: Truth in Storytelling

Editors have to be fierce in making their writers prove their stories.

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Article created by The Century Foundation.

The debacle of James Frey’s unraveled memoir A Million Little Pieces is an illustration of a phenomenon that seems to oversee media and journalism. The “Discerning Eye” is always circulating and regularly it hones in on one or another piece of work, demolishing its author, the sponsoring institution and raising again the questions about truth and integrity that are central to storytelling.

The recent list is long. There were made up stories at the New Republic, the New York Times and USA Today; puffed up stories at NBC (the exploding truck on Dateline some years ago) and CBS (the circumstances of George W. Bush’s National Guard service). Time and Newsweek have coped with exaggerations in cover art. Newsweek had to retract an item about U.S. interrogators’ desecration of the Koran (which, I suspect, was probably true). Now it is the turn of books, in the person of Frey, his publisher, and arguably the most formidable private force in American public life, Oprah.

In 1982, the Washington Post was still basking in what was an extraordinary decade in its history. The Pentagon Papers case had secured its place in what is known among journalists and policymakers as the Times and Post, the twin paragons of journalistic power. Watergate coverage made the Post a giant-killer and so glamorous that Bob and Carl and Ben and Kay became household nicknames. All the Presidents’ Men was an instant classic as book and movie and is still a perennial bestseller in various formats. Then along came Janet Cooke and her made-up Pulitzer Prize winning story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. The impact on the Post was profound, as I recall. There was soul searching, procedures adopted, job positions changed , and overall, a chastening effect on the Post’s brashness and self-confidence that persists to this day.

It may be a jinx to say so, but nothing like the Cooke case has happened at the Post since. Whatever else may be said about the paper by its critics, its fans, and Wall Street analysts, the Washington Post is as solid as the proverbial rock on issues of credibility.

But the Post’s experience suggests an important part of the Discerning Eye phenomenon. It tends to descend on institutions at a moment when they are at a peak of triumph of one kind or another. The Jayson Blair scandal at the Times followed by a few weeks the record-breaking number of Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the Times for its coverage of September 11 and other stories. The CBS 60 Minutes II National Guard story came only a few months after the same producer had uncovered the Abu Ghraib torture pictures to much impact and celebration. And, of course, Frey’s downfall followed his selection by Oprah and the sale of millions of copies of his book. Retribution by fate is beyond the scope of this discussion. But it is undeniably true that soaring success is often accompanied by arrogance which makes the institution especially vulnerable to a failure of standards or insight.

Janet Cooke delivered the kind of story the Post expected of itself. So did Jayson Blair at the Times and so did Mary Mapes at CBS. The editors wanted to believe they were on a winning streak and therefore suspended the absolutely critical component of their job: skepticism and protection of integrity. They were at fault and were punished along with the culprits.

The Frey case reflects how publishing differs from other parts of the information business. Memoirs are works of art and the author is entitled to create a universe into which his or her reflections are placed. James Frey did that, but then went down the path to outright fraud and deception. The events in his books were not interpretations. They were lies. Exactly what happened at Doubleday as the book was being published is murky. But it is clear that in the process of editing, copy editing, and legal review, fundamental questions were never addressed. That was both a failure of process and judgment. The fact is that apparently no one involved wanted to undermine what they expected to be a literary triumph with the nuisance of veracity. Unlike other parts of the media, books have no advertising and no subscription. Everything comes down to sales. The temptation to put standards aside in pursuit of sales volume is enormous.

The solution to these periodic episodes isn’t all that complicated. Editors have to be fierce about the protection of standards and diligent about making writers prove their stories. The bosses, the publishers and executives, have to uphold requirements for accuracy even when that risks losing revenue. And finally, and perhaps easiest of all, the writer has to tell the reader and viewer what he or she is doing. If a name is changed, a fact blurred, setting amplified, it is essential to be specific and clear about where and why it has been done. The Discerning Eye will always be there ready to descend on the careless, sloppy, and venal.


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