American Fact Check: The Moral Dilemma of Blurring the Facts to Tell the Truth
I miss New York sometimes, but I don’t miss its schizophrenic obsession with facts, or the puritan hysteria that attends the discovery that a memoir should have been called a novel or that someone saying something silly in a newspaper story turns out to be as real as Huck Finn. The zealotry of the shaming has a lot to do with journalists’ anxiety about their own influence as purveyors of fact. They can try for years and fail to stir people up about a foreign warlord the way a viral video like Kony 2012 has been able to do. And they can’t get people to feel bad about Chinese working conditions the way Mike Daisey has done in his Off-Broadway show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. But then when Daisey’s act was broadcast on the radio, a reporter figured out that some of the details – a man who mangled his hand working on an iPad assembly line, for example – were fictions.
While Daisey is being reprimanded, a writer called John D’Agata has been promoting a book, Lifespan of a Fact, about the way he changes or makes up the facts. D’Agata and David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, are the leaders of a movement that believes the most interesting things to read present fact and fiction in an unstable mix. It’s also supposed to be the most thrilling sort of writing to do, now that computers make it so easy to blend borrowed text with your own stuff, as Shields does in his manifesto. As avant-gardes go, this one’s fairly tame: a rebellion against marketing labels. These guys don’t like novels because ‘they just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.’ Poor novels. My friend’s agent wants the next one to be a memoir so they can make more money.
Photo: Tom C. Avendano