Saturday, November 10, 2007

My Wednesday Lecture in Journalism Ethics Was on This Topic, So: Two More Classics!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I Would Call This 'True Lies,' But That's the Title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie. Ewwwwwwww!

Talking about Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer" in feature writing today and was caught as always in the cleft stick of how right she is, with what hyperbole she overinflates that rightness and how anyway she ends up blaming the people journalists interview for being such a grand set of chumps, since didn't their mothers tell them they should know better?

(Hmm. Is that a *treble cleft*?)

Or to put it another way, rhetorically speaking Ms. Malcolm rubs her tummy and the top of her head at the same time. Her book doesn't quite say what it says.

Recalled something Jon Carroll wrote a long time ago on Malcolm. Looked it up. Pretty good. And here it is.

He stole from me. Why shouldn't I steal from him?

Joan Didion's famous epigram that ``a writer is always selling somebody out'' has often been interpreted as a Janet Malcolm-like indictment of the vampire treachery that is at the heart of writing. But it's actually more subtle than that.

If you tell the truth, you are often selling out the people who are near to you, who have agreed to talk to you, who have told you their stories, who have gone on travels with you. Writers are not nice people, although they may be charming enough.

But: If you don't tell the truth, you are selling out the readers. And as a professional matter, that is where the loyalties of the writer lie.

A WRITER IS a kind of holy sociopath. A writer -- a good one, anyway -- is always in danger of getting run out of town or denounced from the pulpit or charged with self-indulgence or willful obscurantism or just plain rudeness.

Very few people actually like that experience. Most people want love and approval -- this is not exactly a secret. So why bite the hand that feeds you? Because the hand is corrupt. Why air dirty laundry? Because dirty laundry doesn't get cleaner sitting in a basket.

And because a story needs to be told. All writers start out as readers; all writers have read stories that spoke to them, that opened worlds, that dissected emotions, that explained relationships, that showed them other ways of being. Writers start out being drunk on someone else's words; they spend their lives trying to create equally potent brews.

.... Writing is not just a game they play in New York, although, of course, it's that, too. Writing is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. Someone has to tell those stories. The telling is always risky.

There's a story about the reaction to Truman Capote's ``Answered Prayers,'' his dissection of the New York society circles of which he was so much a part. Many of his friends were portrayed therein, thinly disguised and distinctly unlovable. They were furious. They cut him dead. They accused him of secret note- taking, which he freely confessed.

``What did they expect?'' he said. ``I'm a writer.''

And as a result, we are left with a document that outlines very accurately a certain kind of society at a certain moment in American history. Would that it were a better document, but quality is not the issue.

You can never know really whether what you're writing is any good; you can only hope that you have not broken faith with the reader. A writer is just someone who has lived to tell the tale. It is the tale that must never be betrayed.

Of course, Jon never stole a damn thing from me, never borrowed anything he didn't return, never short-armed a check when the reaching time arrived.

But wasn't it -- in context -- an artful lie?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Like Pimps, Artists Prostitute the World in the Name of Their Art

Don't they? Isn't that the Romantic paradigm, along with the default notion that chipmunks are beautiful?

Yesterday, I slapped together a few words about the Janet Malcolm/Joan Didion idea -- which each of those very able writers may or may not take seriously -- that journalists prey on those they write about, seducing and exploiting them in service of the story. I cribbed from a 13-year old Jon Carroll column defending the Joan Didion take on the perils of writing nonfiction.

This morning Brother Bob Wieder responded:

All very nice, but it sort of all rests on the single piling of loyalty to the reader as the prime directive, which it isn't. Plenty of writers, and there might be an argument to be made that most writers, at heart or right up front are primarily loyal to themselves, or a cause, or a philosophy, or an agenda, or a paycheck, or numerous other ors. Absent that pillar, the rest of the commentary is somewhat ramshackle.

I actually agree with Brother Bob, though I would take it one step further. First let me point out the obvious. What I tell the youth that I claim to instruct is that, when it comes to the true dilemmas of fact gathering and misleading sources, all the ethical codes for journalists that I am familiar with more or less say:

Don't don't don't.

Unless you have to.

The best and brightest rationale for "having to" is, of course, the need to inform the public so that the public can make wise political decisions and preserve the republic.

But, also of course, there is another reason I mention to the students, the one that Brother Bob walks right up to, though he does not actually pass through the door, for over the door is written: Vanity.

You know that deep in their hearts more than one nonfiction writer thinks of his or her work as a kind of art. Their ideology is beauty. They think they are serving readers' desire -- nay, the readers' need -- for the well-made tale, transcendent in its telling, not just in its message. I think lots of serious nonfiction writers are not comfortable teasing that thread out of the fabric of their self justification. But I think that thread is there, all the more sinister for being unacknowledged.

I tell my students to think about the lure of art. I tell them that if you get really good at this, you may decide to sacrifice those folk you use as subject matter to the triumph of your art, indeed to its mere possibility.

That's what artists do, right? Art can be a danger for even the lowliest of journalists, dreaming of aesthetics while prattling on about journalism's duty to the State.


B. Lundigan said...

Michael: When you become a better person, betraying whoever is the subject of your story becomes a more difficult proposition. Doubt creeps in and swagger leaves. The formerly cocksure become less certain. They're nicer people, but gone is the bounce and boldness that moves narratives and makes them pretty. Fortunately, that never happened to me.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

You were the best, Baron.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

The Prince writes:

Liked your ethics blog. Reminded me of a quote in that seminal book, Reporters' Ethics, in which the author quoted a big-time East Coast investigative reporter saying that his wife, forced to be privy to many phone calls he received at home at night, told him (and here I take the liberty of paraphrasing: It's not the people you deal with that puts me off, but how you become so smarmy and pretend to be their friend when you are on the phone with them.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Glo writes:

My two cents: The claim is that "if you don't tell the truth, you are selling your readers out." But isn't the problem that the writer doesn't always know what the "truth" is. Often the writer is telling his version of "the truth"--not always because she is perverse, or because of some hidden agenda, or because of vanity or some self-serving motive, but because it is so often just damn hard to get the truth.

And that probably ain't the whole truth either.