Blog: What’s a fact?
Today’s NYTimes contains not one but two essays excoriating the writer John D’Agata for what trademark lawyers recognize in a different setting as the tort of counterfeiting, or passing off. In the world of goods, this is fake iPads on the streets of lower Manhattan. In the case of John D’Agata, it is fiction masquerading as fact. The object of the ire is D’Agata’s side of a tale of “creative” non-fiction and fact-checking now published as “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a dialogue between D’Agata and a fact-checker, Jim Fingal. This piece by Jennifer B. McDonald appears in the Book Review section. This equally critical comment by Gideon Lewis-Kraus appears in the Magazine.
I’m not here to defend D’Agata, but his critics, particularly McDonald, adopt a tone of purity that weakens their claims. Lewis-Kraus is more comfortable playing Rick Blaine, compromised but doing the right thing by the truth in the end, than McDonald’s Captain Renault; it’s a little late in the day to be shocked — shocked! — to find that so-called journalists are not absolutely truthful at all times or that only writers known to be fantastic with the facts can lay claim to doing so legitimately. The debate in “The Lifespace of a Fact” has long-standing antecedents in claims about plagiarism, fact, and creativity (when, why, and how should sources be attributed?), and even in earlier controversies about truth and fiction in reportage. Do the memories of the New York Times’ editors not run to the New Yorker and Alastair Reid? Apparently not. Here is a reminder.
The underlying problem in the case of D’Agata isn’t that he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, though both Times pieces make a pretty convincing case that he doesn’t. The underlying problem is a continuing breakdown in the institutional matrix (movie pun intended) that helps readers interpret representations of the world and go on about their day-to-day activity: what actually happened? what is “literature”? what is science? and so on. Who trusts the New York Times any longer, when the Public Editor confesses to the thousands and thousands of errors that the paper made last year, and to the many errors that will never be corrected because the staff can’t figure out the truth? The Times, like the truth, is often more a brand than facts-on-the ground: a crafted, sustained bargain between creators, editors, marketers, and publishers and distributors, on the one hand, and the audience, on the other hand, as to what content goes into which box, and how the boxes are labeled. What D’Agate’s critics are challenging isn’t his faithlessness to the facts, but his very crude, foul-mouthed, and condescending refusal to play by the rules of that game.