I’m writing this on the eve of a conference I’m going to, The Latest in Longform: The Berkeley Narrative Journalism Conference. I didn’t have to think twice when I signed up for it a few months ago—what’s not to like about a day of discussing the state of literary nonfiction with a bunch of heavy-hitters in the field? I’m as excited about it as I ever was, but I’m going there tomorrow with a specific concern lurking in the back of my mind. What is truth in nonfiction, and how do we know we’ve found it?
I’m wondering this in the context of two recent events, one large-scale and one personal. The large-scale one is the death knell being sounded for National Geographic by its new owner, Rubert Murdoch. Among the many exalted, dedicated journalists who have been handed pink slips, some are fact-checkers—those unappreciated, hardworking ferret-outers of the truth, gifted in the areas of persistence and patience. This would be bad news in any circumstance, but in a world in which anonymous persons can spout ignorant, inaccurate, biased opinions—and worse, present them as facts—without providing a shred of evidence that there’s any validity to them, losing even a single fact-checker means less likelihood that, as Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, truth will out.
The personal event was my fact-checking of a story written by a good journalist. Thinking I simply needed to clarify a few things, I called the person who’d been interviewed; in the course of our conversation I found that there were more inaccuracies than I’d thought. Had the piece been written by a novice, or a sloppy writer, I might have chalked the inaccuracies up to writer error. And I wish I could. What’s more worrisome than a sloppy writer who will be “saved” by a good editor and fact-checker is the suspicion that the writer and I heard different things from the source—not necessarily because the source said different things, though that’s possible. And certainly we know that memories can be faulty and fleeting. What’s worrisome is how much of what the source said might be interpreted differently by writer and fact-checker—and why should it stop there? If the Writer heard A, and Fact-Checker #1 heard B, then might not Fact-Checker #2 hear C? Does that mean Fact-Checker #3 should be deployed, and what if that person validates some of what Fact-Checker #1 found and some of what Fact-Checker #2 found. How many fact-checkers (and time and money) does it take to get at the truths contained in a single story? Now magnify that by the uncountable pieces of information that screech by our eyes and ears every day. How can we possibly keep up?
The state of the planet depends on the decisions we humans make, and these decisions are tough enough even when we have a fine array of facts to consider. It’s crazy-making to think that these decisions are being made in the absence—or near absence—of truth.
What does this mean? I have no answers for you. Maybe I’ll find some tomorrow.