FACT AND LEGEND: The New York Times is opposed to the crafting of legends!


Epilogue—Except when its own writers craft them: Just for the record, the New York Times is strongly opposed to the crafting of legends!

Readers learned this in two different places in Sunday’s New York Times. In each case, a Times writer was discussing “The Lifespan of a Fact,” an intriguing new book about the dumb ideas of John D’Agata, a professor and essayist/fabulist.

Years ago, D’Agata submitted an essay to Harper’s. At least in part, his essay was rejected due to its endless misstatements of fact. In 2003 or 2005, the essay was submitted to the literary magazine, The Believer. This new book chronicles that magazine’s attempt to fact-check D’Agata’s essay.

The fact-checking was a long, hard slog, for an odd reason: D’Agata doesn’t believe that an artist such as himself should be forced to restrict himself to accurate facts. In the course of the fact-checking by The Believer, he kept insisting on his right to change names, dates and numbers around to make his tale work better.

The New York Times disapproves of such thinking! In Sunday’s New York Times magazine, Gideon Lewis-Kraus batted D’Agata around, making perfectly sensible points about the need to be accurate in factual representations. At one point, he quoted the fact-checker, who was using an appropriate term:

“I mean, what exactly gives you the authority to introduce half-baked legend as fact and sidestep questions of facticity?”

What gives D’Agata the right to dream up a “legend” and present it as fact? That’s a very good question!

Does an essayist have right to manufacture fake facts? We think Lewis-Strauss was perfectly right to batter Professor D’Agata around. Meanwhile, in Sunday’s Book Review section, Jennifer McDonald seconded this emotion! In a high-profile book review!

McDonald’s review of this new book ate up the Book Review’s front page. Quite sensibly, she too rejected the idea that a writer can just make shit up:
MCDONALD (2/26/12): D'Agata uses ''facts'' that aren't facts to make a statement about a ''reality'' that is real for no one but himself, and relies on ''coincidences'' that aren't coincidences to reveal something ''profound'' about Las Vegas, or the cosmos, that is not profound but rather an accidental accumulation of detail and event. He argues that in manipulating Levi's story, he's ''making a better work of art—and thus a better and truer experience for the reader.'' But would it have made the experience any less True to call those vans pink? To let Tweety Nails be Tweety Nails? To give that poor school its comma?

''I try to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos,'' D'Agata writes, but what he creates is a mirage. He takes randomness and superimposes themes, gins up drama where it doesn't exist, tries to convince us his embellishments are more vivid and revealing about a city, about human nature, about Truth, than reality could ever be.

In short, he plays God...But one could contend he's merely making excuses to conceal his own laziness.
We agree with McDonald’s judgments. But as we read her description of D’Agata’s technique, we couldn’t avoid an obvious fact: She was also describing the way many people at the Times write about politics! They too rearrange or invent facts, ginning up drama where none exists. They too try to convince us that their embellishments are more revealing about a candidate than the unvarnished truth.

Duh! Major writers at the Times have worked this way for decades. On Sunday, Times readers were told that it’s very bad when Professor D’Agata exhibits such conduct! But no one noted the fact that his technique is widespread at the Times itself!

Did Al Gore say he invented the Internet? Well actually, no—he did not.

Did John Kerry clownishly say, “Who among us doesn’t love Nascar?” Well actually, no—he didn’t.

Did Muskie weep? Apparently not! Did Naomi Wolf tell Al Gore to wear earth tones? Incredibly, the Times presented this formal correction in July 2007!
NEW YORK TIMES CORRECTION (7/29/07): An article last Sunday about politicians' choice of clothing while campaigning referred incorrectly to the role of Naomi Wolf in Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. She was a consultant on women's issues and outreach to young voters; she was not Mr. Gore's image consultant and was not involved in his decision to wear earth-toned clothing.
How strange! Whatever made Times reporter Guy Trebay think that Wolf had been Gore’s “image consultant?” What made him think that Wolf was involved in Gore’s (alleged) decision to wear earth-toned clothing? We’ll take a wild guess: Among other things, Trebay kept reading that stupid shit in the New York Times all through Campaign 2000! Among others, Maureen Dowd had been ginning up drama where it didn't exist, trying to convince us that her embellishments were more revealing about Candidate Gore than serious work would have been.

Eight years later, Trebay still believed the stupid shit he had read in the New York Times! To read his bungled report from July 2007, go ahead—just click here.

People are dead all over the world because Dowd and her colleagues did that. Gail Collins played those stupid games too in the twenty months of Campaign 2000. Today, she keeps typing shit like this about Mitt Romney’s dog, a topic she can’t know about:
COLLINS (2/23/12): The prime seats at the center of the table went to Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, one of whom is going to be the nominee for president of the United States.

Take your pick, Republicans. On one hand, the guy who once drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car. On the other, the guy who won his first Congressional race by criticizing his opponent for moving his family to Washington. And then later moved his own family to Washington, but said it didn't count because the Senate was different from the House.
Collins has typed that stupid shit more than thirty times now. She doesn’t have the slightest idea what actually happened on that trip. But as McDonald noted this Sunday, some writers are too fucking lazy to stick to the things they know.

Gail Collins is bad for your mental health. People are dead all over the world because of her past behavior. But she will never stop playing this game, any more than Dowd will. Reporters once “amused themselves” with bogus reports from Wounded Knee. Collins keeps amusing herself with tales about Mitt Romney’s dog.

Romney is an historically terrible candidate. He has made historically awful policy proposals. But Collins will never help readers learn about that. Borrowing from McDonald’s prose, one could contend her own massive laziness may be involved in these choices.

On Sunday, the New York Times made a very big deal about its devotion to facts—about its rejection of legend-invention. Lewis-Straus and McDonald went on and on about how bad it is to gin up drama, to invent legends.

They forgot to mention one key fact. This is precisely the way the Times plays this stupid sad game.

Watching a lady embellish: Lady Collins loves to embellish. It gins up drama where none exists, concealing her cosmic sloth:
COLLINS: The Arizona crowd was totally on Romney's side. This was no easy task, since it required a lot of booing and cheering at those obscure earmark arguments. But Mitt needed all the help he could get. He's facing a must-win primary next week in Michigan, which is, of course, his home state. Along with Massachusetts and New Hampshire and California, where he has, um, homes. Michigan appears to be the only Romney home state where Romney does not have an actual residence.
Question: Has anyone ever tried to claim that California is one of Romney’s “home states?” Presumably no, since it plainly isn’t. But Collins managed to gin up some drama—or perhaps a bit of amusement—with this D’Agata-like “fact.”

It helped her get to the end of a column in which she had nothing to say. As usual.

Funny that! In 1999, the press corps ginned a great deal of drama concerning Candidate Gore’s home state! At great length, they feigned confusion about the idea that Tennessee could be his home state. This phony confusion played a key role as they invented their GORE LIAR narrative.

People are dead all over the world because they ginned up that narrative. For the record, “journalists” have toyed with “home state” themes with several other major candidates, allowing themselves to create the illusion of commentary. But then, these people lie the way other folk breathe—and in truth, they just aren’t very smart.

Times writers are constantly “printing the legend!” On Sunday, Lewis-Strauss and McDonald weren’t ready to tell you that fact.


  1. Brilliant post. Thanks, Bob.

  2. Excellent post, Mr. Somerby, and thanks for taking John D'Agata, a rising and totally vacuous star of the literary world, down a few pegs.

  3. he kept insisting on his right to change names, dates and numbers around to make his tale work better.

    I haven't finished the post, but this raised a question in my mind. Didn't Obama do some fictionalizing in Dreams From my Father, for example by compositing characters?

  4. Sorry, disregard the last. I read carelessly, and confused the essay that got fact-checked with the book about the affair.

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