JULY 16, 1984
William Shawn and the temple of facts.
A dyspeptic friend, who earnestly dislikes The New Yorker for its smug insularity, its tiny dada conceits passing as wit, its whimsy presented as serious politics, and its deadpan narratives masquerading as serious journalism, writes:
I have had my suspicions about the vaunted New Yorker fact-checking department ever since I met a New Yorker fact checker at a dinner party several years ago. This fellow—a real individual, not a composite—regaled the gathering with tales of chartering airplanes to measure the distance between obscure Asian capitals, sending battalions of Sarah Lawrence girls to count the grains of sand on a particular beach referred to in an Ann Beattie story, and suchlike tales of heroic valor in the pursuit of perfect accuracy. After several hours of this (actually, one hour, 17 minutes, and 53 seconds), he turned to me with a polite smile and said, “Tell us about your fact-checking system at The New Republic.”
I was editor of The New Republic at the time. I replied, “You’re looking at it.”
He turned pale. Actually, he didn’t turn pale. I embroider. But he did say, “That’s odd, because if I’m checking a story in The New Yorker and find the fact I need in The New Republic, I consider it checked.”
So I was less shocked than many people, though probably more pleased than most, at the recent revelation that a New Yorker writer named Alastair Reid has been fabricating the details in his reports for the magazine over more than two decades. A bar in a Spanish town was invented and populated with chatty locals; a son at Yale was turned into a more colorful grandniece; that weariest of all journalistic devices, an opinionated taxi driver, was conjured up; and so on.
The Wall Street Journal , which uncovered this story, has known sorrow itself recently. When one of its reporters was caught trading in the stocks he was touting in the paper, the Journal investigated and published a brutally frank report on its own front page. That is not The New Yorker’s style. This is a publication that doesn’t even run letters to the editor, and it will only publish a correction once in a blue moon under the genteel heading, “Department of Amplification.” The initial response to the Journal’s story from William Shawn, The New Yorker’s legendary editor, was in keeping with this self-satisfied tradition. Though the revelation had come from Reid himself, Shawn simply refused to acknowledge it. He stonewalled. “I’ve worked with Mr. Reid for many, many years, I trust him completely . . . He’s a man of utter integrity, and that’s all I have to know.” Case closed. The world’s best fact-checking department is very nice, but please don’t confuse Mr. Shawn with the facts about his own operation.
Within a day, stonewall segued into cover-up (though, to pursue the Watergate imagery, never into anything so unrefined as a modified limited hangout). Shawn told The Washington Post that Reid had changed the details of his Franco-era reports from Spain in order to protect his sources from reprisal. This was a concern Reid had failed to mention in his several homilies, quoted in the Journal, about the difference between facts and truth. It also fails to explain why Reid made up anecdotes like the touching little number about meeting the poet Czesław Miłosz and telling him that they were born in the same year (“He lighted up at once . . . ”), when in fact Reid is 15 years younger. Nor does it explain where those fact checkers were when Reid was spinning his petty fantasies.
Shawn also took an ugly swipe at the young reporter who’d written the story for The Wall Street Journal . “This was a very subtle matter and this young woman who did the piece is not a subtle writer,” he huffed to the Post. There was no suggestion that she’d gotten her facts wrong. But it appears that William Shawn regards “not subtle” as a more damning indictment of a journalist than “not accurate.”
Actually, there’s something to this point of view. Alastair Reid is right to protest that the fundamental truth of his articles shouldn’t be judged on the basis of a few phony flourishes. The ornamental details he faked have about as much to do with the soundness of his reports as the broken pediment on top of the AT&T Building reveals about the structure underneath. Bars, taxis, sunsets . . . it’s just decoration. But where does this leave The New Yorker, a weekly monument to the proposition that journalism consists of the endless accretion of tiny details?
Shortly after noon on Monday January 24, 1983 the principal member of Governor Mario M. Cuomo’s staff assembled in the Governor’s office, on the second floor of the State Capitol, in Albany.
So begins part two of a recent profile, majestically entitled, “Governor.” This piece (by a good journalist in other contexts) goes on to describe every other person at the meeting; what Cuomo was wearing—“a white shirt, a red striped tie, and a three-piece gray suit”; and where he sat—“at a glass-topped table.” You’re probably wondering what was on the table. Well, “it was bare except for a telephone console and a black loose-leaf binder . . . ” If you’re also wondering what all this has to do with anything, where the article is going, or why the author has written it, you’re out of luck. To pique the reader’s interest with a clever title or a snappy lead or—God forbid— a line or two at the top summarizing what the article has to say would be vulgar salesmanship.
Indeed, the very notion of an article having something to say offends William Shawn, who told The Wall Street Journal that his magazine “is as close to being scientific in its objectivity as reporting can be,” with no “no advocacy . . . no prejudices.” Just the facts, and plenty of ’em. Of course this pretense is as phony as Alastair Reid’s grandniece. The Cuomo profile, for example, radiates admiration for the governor. This admiration undoubtedly is justified. But the pretense that no argument is being made saves The New Yorker writer from having to present and defend the argument he or she is, in fact, making. The reader’s critical facility is benumbed right there in the opening paragraph with the information that the New York State Capitol is in Albany, and the governor’s office is on the second floor.
Not long after meeting The New Yorker fact checker, I found myself in a job interview with the legendary Mr. Shawn himself, which foundered on this very question of “the facts.” The interview wasn’t going well anyway, as it took the form of a vicious duel of competitive gentility, and I was at a hopeless disadvantage against an old master. Mr. Shawn’s posture was that I was a terribly busy and important man who, motivated by purest charity, had taken the time out of a hectic schedule to spend a few moments brightening the life of an aged and forgotten invalid. “Oh, Mr. Kinsley,” he cooed. “Thank you so very, very much for coming to see me. It’s so awfully kind of you,” and so on and so forth. Thoroughly disoriented, since this was a meeting any young journalist would kill for, and since only moments earlier I had been ushered into his office as if to a shrine, I could only murmur, “Not at all, not at all.”
The discussion eventually turned from the topic of my condescension in agreeing to meet with the editor of The New Yorker to The New Yorker itself. What, as an editor, did I think of it? Well, I said as tentatively as possible, I thought that some of the articles tended perhaps to go on just a bit, and that occasionally it was hard to follow (I refrained from saying “detect”) the thread of the writer’s thinking. One function of an editor, I recklessly opined, is to ask while reading a manuscript: “What’s the point?”
“Oh, Mr. Kinsley,” said Mr. Shawn piteously. He looked deeply wounded, as if I’d taken this thing called “the point” and run him through with it. O.K., so he didn’t. I exaggerate. A bit. He did say with a sigh, as if describing a treasured family custom which an outsider couldn’t possibly be expected to understand, “Here at The New Yorker, Mr. Kinsley, we believe in letting the facts speak for themselves.” Soon he was waltzing me toward the elevator, thanking me deliriously for visiting him and clutching my pile of writing samples to his bosom like a gift of flowers.
he June 18 New Yorker has an article about corn. It’s the first in what appears to be a series, no less, discussing the major grains. What about corn? Who knows? Only The New Yorker would have the lofty disdain for its readers to expect them to plow through 22,000 words about corn (warning: only an estimate; the TNR fact checkers are still counting) without giving them the slightest hint why. Here is how it starts (after a short introductory poem):
When the New England farmer and botanist Edward Sturtevant retired, in 1887, as head of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, in Geneva, he left behind a bulky manuscript that was published in 1919, twenty-one years after his death, as “Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants.” Dr. Sturtevant, who was also a graduate of the Harvard Medical School, but never practiced medicine, had scoured the world’s botanical literature for mentions of all the plants that human beings were known to have eaten (he did not count tree bark, which in times of famine was often one of them), and had come up with among more than three hundred thousand known plant species, two thousand eight hundred and ninetyseven edibles. (Latter-day scientists believe he may have missed as many more.) But, of all these, only a hundred and fifty or so have ever been widely enough consumed to figure in commerce, and of those a mere handful have been of any real consequence.
Now, there are some facts for you. No doubt every single one of them has been checked. You stand in awe as they tumble toward you, magnificently irrelevant, surrounded by mighty commas, mere numbers swollen into giant phrases (“two thousand eight hundred and ninetyseven”), all finally crashing over you with the bravura announcement that nothing you have just read is “of any real consequence.” How true this is! From the end of the paragraph, you gaze back on the receding vistas of inconsequence, as far as the eye can see. Even supposing we would like a bit more information about corn, and even supposing we might be relieved to know how many other plants, edible and otherwise, are not going to be discussed in this article, why are we being told about a man whose count apparently was off by half? Even supposing we need to know about Dr. Sturtevant’s book, when it was published, and when the good doctor died, why do we need to know when he retired? Even—stretching it—supposing that we need to know that this gentleman “was also a graduate of the Harvard Medical School,” why, oh why, do we have to learn that he “never practiced medicine”? As for the business about tree bark, that has just got to be conscious self-parody.
Meanwhile, in the “Talk of the Town” section of the same issue, the anonymous voice of Eustace Tilly is opining about Central America. It is in favor of freedom and against repression. A sound position. Offered in defense of it, however, is this dubious proposition:
Moreover, quite apart from ethical considerations, we find that repression abroad is eventually inimical to liberty at home. In the long run, either the repression abroad or the liberty at home must give way.
That is a typical piece of New Yorker political analysis: sweet, but not terribly acute. It’s the kind of thinking you get when you’re committed to the pretense that you’re not thinking. The world would have a pleasing symmetry if support for repression abroad inevitably produced repression at home, but there is no such pleasing symmetry in the world outside 25 West 43rd Street. The British Empire, for example, had a good long run, during which Britain itself became more democratic, not less, and which ultimately broke down for reasons having nothing to do with concern about repression at home. How did this one get past the fact checkers? Simple. It’s not a “fact” of the checkable sort. The New Yorker has no sense checkers. Indeed, because of its pretense that all that matters are “the facts,” its hermetic editorial process, and its refusal to submit what it publishes to a reality test such as letters to the editor, there is less of a check on nonsense there at The New Yorker than at any other major publication.
“I venture to say that The New Yorker is the most accurate publication not only in this country, but in the entire world,” Mr. Shawn ventures to say. This would be an unimpressive boast, even if it were true.