Facts are sacred, as I told CP Scott

We have long suspected that all this American fact-checking stuff was a charade. Now we know
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The Independent Culture
BRITISH JOURNALISTS have been smirking at two high-profile scandals involving two of their American peers who made up quotes and events in articles for two highly respected publications.

No, that sentence will not do. Since we are writing on the subject of journalistic accuracy, let's be spot on. British journalists have been laughing hysterically, slapping their thighs and fighting desperately to retain bladder control. "We have long suspected that all this fact checking stuff was a charade," said a source close to me yesterday. "And now we know."

A columnist for the Boston Globe, Patricia Smith, resigned after she was found to have made up quotes. This came shortly after Stephen Glass, a very youthful feature writer for the New Republic, was unmasked as a fictional writer of the highest order. He had made up events, companies and people, even going to the lengths of creating a website and voice mail for one of his companies. As I told my wife, the actress Kate Winslet, over breakfast, all of this is outrageous. It would never have happened when Ed Murrow and I were reporting on the Blitz in 1940.

American newspapers and magazines pride themselves on their commitment to accuracy. Comment is free, but facts are sacred, after all. The magazines have legions of fact checkers to make sure each and every assertion is backed by reality. American journalists are often very sniffy about British journalism, charging that British papers do not maintain the stoutest firewalls between news and opinion. The media in the US takes itself very seriously, even if the public at large doesn't.

There are all sorts of spurious explanations for the latest outbreak of creativity, most of which centre on the tremendous pressures faced by journalists. Time is short, careers are precious and everyone wants to make sure that their stories get noticed. Most of this is nonsense. What is true and relevant, however, is a gradual change in reporting in British and American newspapers in the past few years. There is pressure to make things presentable and entertaining, sometimes at the expense of other values.

The news has increasingly been taken over by a meandering, join-the-dots style of impressionist reporting. Of the 14 stories that start on the front pages of yesterday's Washington Post and New York Times, nine have laid-back, anecdotal introductions. "When President Clinton touched down in April 1996 ... ", for instance; or "From 201 feet above the runway ... " I just hope we're sure it was exactly 201 feet.

Who, what, when, how, where and why are out of fashion. Everything has to be touchy-feely. Finding the establishing detail for stories, getting the right quotes and background detail to make every article read like a short story has become as important as relevance or insight. This is an open invitation to, umm, inventiveness.

There is a curious side to the latest award for creative writing, however. After all, Ms Smith was a columnist. Columnists get to write what they want because they are read for their opinions. Why should a columnist feel that she has to invent quotes? Because strong, hard-hitting opinions are also out of fashion.

The New Republic, after all, used to be a magazine of political opinion, but the pressures that have taken the news out of news have also diluted the opinion in opinion. Everything has to be rooted in daily life and times.

The Olympian style of the old-time columnists, always de haut en bas, was sometimes irritating, but at least it was usually sharp. Many American columnists don't have anything in particular which they wish to tell us, just something that they wish to share.

What is left is a kind of mush not unlike those bottles of fruit crush called smoothies, a liquidised blend of emotion, factoids and prepackaged thought.

Not all the time, of course. Often, the American press delivers devastatingly researched pieces of investigation, crisp reporting full of insight, angry and incisive argument that will change opinions. But increasingly it also brings us long, rambling, anecdotal chunks of drear that wind on for page after page, and you find yourself reading the adverts with greater interest. At least they're short and to the point.

Creative writing is a booming market in the US, and doubtless Mr Glass has a flourishing career ahead of him now that the New Republic has paid such lavish tribute to his inventive genius. A self-help book for the imaginatively challenged can only be a few lunches away. Comment is free, facts are sacred, and a book contract is in the post.

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