Who’s sorry now?

Andrew O’Hagan

  • True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel
    Chatto, 312 pp, £15.99, May 2005, ISBN 0 7011 7688 1
  • Burning Down My Master’s House by Jayson Blair
    New Millennium, 288 pp, US $24.95, March 2004, ISBN 1 932407 26 X
  • The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
    Granta, 163 pp, £8.99, January 2004, ISBN 1 86207 637 5

Perhaps we have to thank Watergate, even Deep Throat himself, that sussurating, parking-lot ghoul, for planting us in a world where the shriek of actuality has given way to the soft lilt of fiction. To me there is a stylistic link between that great moment for the Washington Post and the paper’s worst moment, in September 1980, when they ran a report by Janet Cooke that had everyone talking. Cooke wrote a thrilling story about an eight-year-old boy from a low-income neighbourhood of Washington who was addicted to heroin, a story for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. But the New Journalistic ethos was overstrained in Cooke’s case, for her infant addict didn’t exist. The young journalist got caught, the paper was humiliated, but the only element in the tale that was brand new was the level of mea culpa that seemed to invigorate all the participants.

In recent times, this level of regret has become somewhat operatic, and this can’t simply be due to the fact that so many of the recent journalistic fabricators are American. Britain doesn’t go in for the three-act opera so much, but this country’s journalism is full of fabrications: invented sources, bogus statistics, faked opinion, and even faked photographs, although it is difficult to imagine any British reporter inventing an entire story including his notes, his quotes, his expenses and his subject. It seems we all have something groovy to learn from the Americans both in terms of souping up our stories and in terms of feeling really bad about it afterwards. This new memoir from Michael Finkel streaks across a firmament already glittering with apologetic precedents.

Stephen Glass, once a popular and ambitious young thing at the New Republic, invented email addresses and whole companies to hide his deceit, and later went on to invent a novel about the affair, The Fabulist, which features a not-entirely-well-concealed character called Stephen Glass, who invented email addresses and whole companies to hide his deceit. ‘I don’t know how I can demonstrate my remorse,’ Glass is reported to have said to Andrew Sullivan, the editor who hired him. Sullivan pointed out, not in so many words, that taking a giant book advance and allowing a film to be made from the story of your misdemeanours might not be the subtlest demonstration of remorse. Next came Jayson Blair of the New York Times, whose inventions created a tidal wave of apologies, a 7000-word explanation in the paper, and a subsequent affirmative action squabble that saw the executive editor, Howell Raines, and the managing editor, Gerald Boyd, removed from their positions.

‘I hope you will agree with me that everyone should have the chance to apologise,’ Blair writes in the early pages of his action-thriller-memoir Burning Down My Master’s House. It’s not that you don’t feel bad for Blair (you do) or bad for his bosses at the Times (you sort of do), it’s just that any contagion of piety eventually provokes one to laughter. A stray candle burns the cloth on a holy altar and, the next minute, everyone is wailing in a medieval way about faith and trust. Blair’s book is a masterpiece of such overstatement: you get the impression he will go to any lengths to avoid simply saying: ‘I was stupid. I got busted. It sucks.’ He blames cocaine, he blames Johnny Walker Black, he blames overwork, he blames manic depression, he blames his colleagues, he blames his many relatives in prison, he blames the paper for not taking enough interest in the Holocaust, he blames white America, he blames black America, he blames fast food, he blames 9/11, but most of all, and with enormous flagellating brio, he blames himself, which is a little harsh given those other things are so very much bigger than him. Blair’s book is better when not describing his journalistic crimes and misdemeanours (which is a stroke of luck, given that he doesn’t actually get round to describing them until 34 pages before the end), lighting up when he’s telling us how good he was at having a good time, and also when telling the truth about how stories on the Times are prioritised. For much of the book Blair is having a whale of a time, with a whale of a time’s attendant regrets. He is a bit like someone out of Less than Zero, although in America there is always a higher-than-average price to be paid for having a few drinks. Blair wants to apologise for his whole existence, and the whole of existence itself, in place of just explaining how his ambition got to run so far ahead of him. There’s no doubting, though, that his basic fears say a great deal about what is happening in American journalism.

Not quite as much, though, as True Story. Michael Finkel was another of the New York Times’s ambitious young writers. He’d written a few high-octane things, was liked by his editors, and got into a bit of a state while trying to put together a piece on child slave labour on the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast. He wasn’t finding enough evidence of pure child slavery, and he wasn’t finding the one single experience of enforced work that would turn his assignment into a winner. He interviewed sixty or more workers, and was discovering that the ‘slave story had been blown out of proportion’. He wanted to write a story that would demonstrate ‘how we can sometimes see what we’re looking for instead of what really exists’.

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