I am saddened at having to type these words now, in 2017 (although it makes me happy that I can still publish these words): Facts matter.
Facts aren’t opinions, feelings, or interpretations. Facts themselves are facts — verifiable things, pursuable and clear. Some in our field have questioned this in recent, Trumped-up conversations, instead of doing the less popular work of training the next generation of nonfiction writers about how getting facts, and rendering them ethically and artfully, is done.
I value facts dearly. I work hard to gain them and to understand how to arrange them in useful ways. Their acquisition is the cleanest part of my job as a reporter and that clarity is one of the reasons why I am so keen to pursue facts (perhaps so keen that I drag out my deadlines by weeks, and months — even years).
In a changing world, and in a profession that vaults you into that world—with the profession itself under renovation — facts can be a relief. The real world isn’t tidy, and engaging with it can be chaotic. Information doesn’t present itself in an orderly fashion, and the pursuit of information can also be disruptive, even when one’s intentions are both open and legitimate. One doesn’t discover ways of expanding readers’ understanding without experiencing some serious discoveries oneself. And like your actual home, at a specific address, facts are both traceable and anchoring. They create a foundation upon which more complex analysis can be built, and their limitations restrain me from imaginative digressions and intellectual cul-de-sacs, which are tempting against the hard reckoning of trying to make a messy world cohere.
I love finding facts, teasing them out, cross-checking them against other facts, whenever possible tracing them back to the facts they came from. Fact checkers are some of my favorite people. They are dogged in pursuit of veracity, spending hours trying to track down whether or not “descended down four flights of stairs to the street” does or does not include the stairs of a stoop, or noting that an old snapshot taken with a disposable camera in 2007 is not properly a Polaroid. They are partners in honesty, making sure the details of a story are earned.
One of the reasons why I prefer reporting over writing is because so much of the rest of the practice of my craft is morally freighted, and often terrifying. It’s nervy what journalists do: the way we take the experience of a situation or a person and render it publicly. We already have a great deal of power, are already feared and distrusted, so why would we add unreliability to that cocktail?
This is why the most effective nonfiction involves the input of other people: editors, managing editors, copy-editors, fact-checkers. That accountability makes our work deeper and more nuanced. That accountability creates a working faith, which is valuable in its own right, but especially when mistakes and scandals occur, as they inevitably will.
At the same time, the United States is today grappling with the realization that a disregard for facts is no longer merely a fashionable stance in some graduate writing programs but a staple of disinformation campaigns, and it has precipitated a national crisis.
Journalism is already fraught and in need of many crucial debates and conversations other than the fake debate over whether facts exist: how to ethically enlist busy people to give their time and to allow journalists into their lives; how to be a good guest and interviewer while also a rigorous, self-interested one; when are more surreptitious reporting strategies merited?
Also: How to convince editors, who are under pressure from their own bosses, that one’s hunches are worth investing time and money in? How to care for the professional wellbeing of freelancers, who are unprotected on multiple fronts? How to provide fact-checking and other supports in the current, rapid-fire news environment? How to assess the interests of experts who guide us? What meaning to assign to facts by their arrangement, or omission?
What obligations does the presentation of certain facts create for ongoing reporting as stories unfold? How might the media divvy up the stories we pursue in packs, so as to better utilize the limited resources for our work?
How will we proceed to repair the public trust? Is that trust actually gone? How does the entertainment business, of which we are a part, come to bear on all of this? Will we end up dismantling the words that blur the bright line between truth and fiction?
Fake news is not news, but propaganda.
There’s also sentence-level craftsmanship — the tools we have stolen from fiction, and there are ways of honorably and dishonorably using them. How, working with the facts, do we remain true to a best-effort of understanding while writing with enough artistry to hold an audience constantly presented with much easier ways of spending their time? But it is the facts as much as anything else — my aim to report not just on my own experience of the world but on others’ experience, as well — that gives my vocation its legitimacy.
And that gives it its necessary audacity, also, and a claim to shared meaning, while thornier writing issues can be robustly debated. These include where to begin a story, and where to end it.
And how, in the end, will our profession frame the story of our profession’s relationship to facts, as necessary as they have always been, and remain right now?
Fifty years ago, Hannah Arendt, in “Truth and Politics,” an essay which was originally published in the New Yorker on February 25, 1967, attempted to put an end to the conflation of interpretation, opinion, and fact with one pithy example:
“Even if we admit,” she wrote, “that every generation has the right to write its own history, we admit no more than that it has the right to rearrange the facts in accordance with its own perspective; we don’t admit the right to touch the factual matter itself. To illustrate this point, and as an excuse for not pursuing this issue any further: During the 20s, so a story goes, Clemenceau, shortly before his death, found himself engaged in a friendly talk with a representative of the Weimar Republic on the question of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War. ‘What, in your opinion,’ Clemenceau was asked, ‘will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial issue?’
“He replied, ‘This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.’”
Provocations is a series produced in conjunction with “The Future of the Truth,” a UCI Forum for the Academy and the Public conference, staged in partnership with LARB, taking place in Irvine on February 3 and 4, 2017.