A blurred line between lying and telling the truth

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Even the world of non-fiction has felt the brunt of the radical changes within the publishing industry. In reality, the core mechanisms of change has been coming for a long time, but only recently have an abundance of writers felt confident enough in their own storytelling abilities to venture into an intriguing new, evolving genre of narrative non-fiction.

There was a time when fiction and non-fiction had a definite dividing line.

Fiction was a pack of lies well told.

Non-fiction was a cold, hard, no-nonsense look at the truth, the way it was, the way it happened, the way it should be remembered.

Now the lines have begun to blur.

There are still forms of nonfiction in its purest of forms. These are the historical and scholarly works where virtually every word, every line, every thought, every fact has been documented and properly notated. These pages are filled with fine print, footnotes, and ibids.

There was a time when journalism was considered a sacred truth.

Old school reporters were told to stand up alongside those front-page headlines, place their hands on the Bible, and give the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help us god, faithfully filling those newspaper columns with a concoction of who, what, why, when, where, and how.

Nothing else.

Just the facts, ma ‘am.

Anything else would be regarded as yellow journalism.

By the time I entered the newspaper business, yellow was already becoming quite fashionable as the color of the day.

As we patrolled our regular beats each day, only one thing was for certain: find a story that was lurid and scandalous, and we had a chance to see our by-lines in bold print on the front page.

Find something good to say about somebody, and our by-lines would be buried somewhere on page forty-three of Section G, destined for the bottom of a bird cage.

So we learned to track down a few bits of information, twist a few facts, revise a few quotes, put a few well-chosen words in the mouths of people who were already too nervous to talk to the press and, viola, there was our name right below the nameplate.

As a police reporter, I found a small two-line report that a homeless man had been found passed out alongside the expressway. He had a scratch on his neck. I wrote: Before dawn this morning, police discovered an unconscious man lying beside the freeway with his throat slashed. His identify was missing, and his shoes had obviously been stolen. My piece of journalism made it above the nameplate.

In those days, however, we did need to have a minimum of two sources to corroborate a critical fact in a news story, and those sources had to have names. We had to print those names.

Then along came Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and their mysterious “Deep Throat,” and newspapers realized that maybe two named sources were no longer necessary, not if a reporter could dramatically establish that one really good inside informant had all of the facts.

Names didn’t matter.

Not anymore, they didn’t.

It was all about the story.

And publishing, virtually overnight, came one step closer to living in a world where the line between fiction and nonfiction could be erased at a moment’s notice. If you had to wait to make sure the facts were correct and miss the final two o’clock deadline, then forget it and run with the story you had.

“Have you talked to the detective?” my editor asked.

“No.”

“Do you know him pretty well?”

“I do.”

“Do you have a pretty good idea of what he would say about a murder like this?”

“He and I have talked about a lot of murders in the past six months.”

“Then quote him.”

“He may not like it.”

The editor shrugged. “Give him a couple of big words that will impress the chief,” he said.

I did.

He loved it. By the end of the next day, the detective actually thought the quote was his own.

All over the country, the hard-core news story was dead, dying, or at least turning blue. Pure non-fiction, as far as journalism was concerned lost its holy perch on the journalistic ladder. Reporters were writing feature stories that read and sounded a lot like short stories.

The world of writing had begun to re-invent itself. Nonfiction, in the words of song-writing legend Kris Kristofferson, had become partly fact and partly fiction, partly truth and contradiction.

Narrative nonfiction and the nonfiction novel weren’t far behind.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    I fear that truth in nonfiction is always colored by the person writing the story, and the sources who tell the writer what they remember, and no one ever remembers the incident the same way. When I wrote “The American Cowboy,” I had seven old-time cowboys tell me the same story as though it had happened to them. We often tell the same story for so many years we actually believe it did happen to us.

  • Carol Toberny

    Way back in Journalism 101 we were taught to be objective when writing an article. I increasingly notice that today’s reporters throw in all sorts of adjectives that slant the tone of the article to favor their view. Pure journalism seems to be a lost art. Too bad.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Carol, back when I majored in journalism, we were taught to write who, what, where, why, and how. Now it appears that reporters are taught to write, “My opinion is …. ” So often, editors decide what the story should be, then send reporters out to find enough opinions to support the story they want told.

      • Carol Toberny

        That explains a lot!

    • Darlene Jones

      You’ve nailed it Carol. All those adjectives have no place in objective reporting.

  • Don Newbury

    Wasn’t it Blackie Sherrod who described someone as being “as pure as driven slush?”…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      It was indeed, Don. Blackie was a great literary writers who just happened to write sports.

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