Mixing fiction with fact
In a December, 1961, article for The New Yorker magazine, staff writer Alastair Reid described the scene in a Barcelona bar as local residents watched Generalissimo Francisco Franco deliver a televised speech. As quiet mutterings from the “regulars” gave way to outright anger, Reid quoted one of the locals growling at the image on the screen, “There is always room in prison, even for the fattest.” It was an evocative piece of writing. It was also untrue in many of its details. In fact, Reid had watched the broadcast in a friend’s home, not a bar, and the “regulars” were his associates. Last week The Wall Street Journal quoted Reid, who has been on staff at The New Yorker since 1960, as saying that for years he has invented dialogue, characters and situations and passed them off as nonfiction in order to “make the larger truth clear.” In a subsequent interview with Maclean’s Reid claimed that the Journal had “misunderstood” and “misquoted” him. But he also said that he was “a fan of subjective journalism,” and argued that “the accumulation of facts, while of value, is not the sum total of reality.”
For North American journalists Reid’s admissions as reported by the Journal’s Joanne Lipman raised serious questions of professional ethics. Many critics were quick to reject a writing style that would allow reporters to blend fact and fiction. Said George Bain, a Maclean’s columnist, media critic and
director of the school of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax: “I don’t give a damn about ‘larger truth.’ Once you start fiddling around with a reasonably accurate account, you should be writing novels.” Peter Desbarats, dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of Western Ontario in London, added: “From day one we teach students that reporting is the essence of journalism. Facts are sacred.” For his part, New Yorker editor William Shawn, whose magazine is a legend for the thoroughness of its factchecking, declared that Reid’s invention of the barroom scene “was a mistake, and he should not have done it.” But Shawn also claimed that Reid’s offences were minor and he, too, accused the Journal of misrepresenting facts.
The Reid-Lipman affair is not the first celebrated charge of fictional journalism to emerge recently in major U.S. publications. In one well-publicized case, scandal erupted at The Washington Post three years ago when investigation revealed that reporter Janet Cooke had invented a story, which later won the Pulitzer Prize, about “Jimmy,” supposedly an eight-year-old heroin addict from a Washington ghetto. Still, such incidents are relatively rare and in the view of some journalists might even be useful. Said Dick MacDonald, editor of Content, a Toronto-based magazine for journalists: “The discovery of this type of thing leads to greater self-control and self-examination. — SHONA MCKAY