Have I lied to you yet?
May 16, 2003 12:00 PM   Subscribe

To Tell the Truth: Writer Sarah Hepola describes a night drinking beers with disgraced Times reporter Jayson Blair and her own muddy relationship with the truth. "I’ve been trying to stay outside the gray areas these days. I’m trying to tell the truth, in all its raggedness. But I slip up sometimes. I duck the straight and narrow. As I read over what I have written here, I wonder: Have I lied to you yet? Would I even know?"
posted by junkbox (28 comments total)
Have I lied to you yet? Would I even know?

I think you'd know. We're not talking about absolute Truth with a capital T here. We're just talking about not making up quotes that people never said and events that never occurred.
posted by 4easypayments at 12:24 PM on May 16, 2003

Don't. Make. Shit. Up.

posted by WolfDaddy at 12:43 PM on May 16, 2003

Thanks for the link. Excellent, honest writing.
posted by dobbs at 1:00 PM on May 16, 2003

honest writing

How do you know?
posted by timeistight at 1:09 PM on May 16, 2003

Sarah Hepola rocks. great article.
posted by soplerfo at 1:11 PM on May 16, 2003

great link. thanks.
posted by jann at 1:21 PM on May 16, 2003

...unless, of course, she never really met Jayson Blair... Hmmmmmmm...
posted by Perigee at 1:31 PM on May 16, 2003

I love her writing, too. This is Ms. Hepola's weblog entry saying goodbye to New York, from last summer.

I would love to see her branching out into media like "This American Life." She has the poignance of Sarah Vowell.
posted by onlyconnect at 1:31 PM on May 16, 2003

Yeah, my first thought upon reading this (apart from the fact that it wasn't as good as rosecrans's terrific, new yorker-worthy piece on eating in chinatown), was that Sarah Hepola could have made it up, no problem. Metajournalism, or something. Colour me underwhelmed.
posted by Marquis at 1:32 PM on May 16, 2003

Agree to the strong smell of bullshit around this thing. What, is Blair gonna come out and contradict her?
posted by krewson at 2:06 PM on May 16, 2003

True story: Don't ever ever play the Kevin Bacon game with Sarah if you find yourself next to her at a party. She cheats and will swear loudly at you if you try to bend the rules. I'm just saying.

Other than that, she's a lovely human being.
posted by ColdChef at 2:08 PM on May 16, 2003

Marquis' post makes me think of things on metafilter that have been completely fabricated out of a sense of whimsy. I'm not saying it's the same thing, at all (the difference between artistic and journalistic license, I think), but I do find the baseless accusation that Hepola is fabricating pretty interesting. Maybe it just means that as news consumers we are learning to be properly suspicious of what we read and the people who write it.

Did she meet him or not? Did he hit on her or not? She included a source that she told about it the next day, who could presumably verify it or not. So I personally don't think she made it up, because I've followed her weblog for a long time, and because *not* making shit up is really the point of the story.
posted by onlyconnect at 2:11 PM on May 16, 2003

It sounds as if Ms. Hepola is in need of a large amount of personal growth. Deadline may be in 20 minutes, but that doesn't mean that it's time to lie, embellish, fabricate, or whatever it is she tells herself she's doing. And maybe her editor, her last drunken binge, or Jayson Blair made her do it, but it's still her responsibility. And I don't see that she's intending to do anything about it.
posted by halonine at 5:08 PM on May 16, 2003

Wow, tough crowd. You people who automatically assume everything is lies are missing out on... well, just about everything. That was a thoughtful and honest piece about dishonesty. Thanks, junkbox.
posted by languagehat at 5:31 PM on May 16, 2003

I'm inclined to believe her. Who would want to make up so much embarassing material about one's own alcoholism?

I am also close friends with several journalists and this has the ring of truth to me. They're a precious bunch, full of their own weaknesses, prejudices, and personal problems. But so much depends on them.
posted by scarabic at 5:58 PM on May 16, 2003

It seems pointless to me to worry about a moral obligation to tell the truth. It's a journalistic professional hazard to lie. This Blair guy took his chance and got caught and is paying a price for it.

Just like a carpenter is better off trying to build houses that don't fall apart, it's probably in a journalist's best interest to tell stories that are true.
posted by frenetic at 6:14 PM on May 16, 2003

My read of this piece is that it is written by a drunk who asserts forgetfulness and presumes unusually good self behavior. I'd write more but I can't stop laughing.
posted by paleocon at 7:56 PM on May 16, 2003

Personaly, I don't belive this girl. She admits to 'embelishing' to 'editing quotes'. They're called 'elipses' little girl. She's just a self loathing blareite.

You see this stuff all the time on collage campuses. But those kinds of activities shouldnt' be let into the real world.
posted by delmoi at 9:49 PM on May 16, 2003

Have I lied to you yet? Would I even know?

I think you'd know. We're not talking about absolute Truth with a capital T here. We're just talking about not making up quotes that people never said and events that never occurred.
On the contrary -- this is about Truth with a capital T. When you compose anything (at least, when I do), there's a constant urge to "nip and tuck", as she puts it, to nudge reality into something denser, quicker to write, richer, more meaningful. More right. Making these tiny changes can become reflexive, and when they're made, it almost writes over the original event in your memory; you become unsure of exactly how accurate your account is.

there's a constant urge to "nip and tuck"

Actually, it's not constant. "Fairly frequent, but varying greatly in frequency from day to day and year to year" is closer to the truth. (See?)
posted by Tlogmer at 1:24 AM on May 17, 2003

And what languagehat said. Parts of that article deserve to be quoted:
The journalistic imperative, in the words of the Times, is ‘the simple truth,’ but too many of us abandoned that long ago like an old party joke. Ha, the simple truth – I’ve heard that one before. And the simple truth is often at odds with our narrative flourishes, our ability to entertain, to engage, to instruct. Those are the imperatives of Hollywood not journalism, but these days, it can be hard to tell the two apart.


That line rings even truer in an age of digital manipulation and reality TV and a thousand other ways to blur the line between fact and fiction, news and entertainment. I don’t trust much these days – not network news, not CNN, not much mainstream media at all. (I do, as a general rule, trust The New York Times.) When he won his Oscar for best documentary, Michael Moore said, ‘We live in fictitious times,’ and Bowling for Columbine is proof. Not only does it rip the veil off the hysteria and half-truths handed us by the media, but it abuses those same tools of obfuscation to push Moore’s agenda. It’s an entertaining film, a great piece of activism, but the simple truth? No way.
posted by Tlogmer at 1:26 AM on May 17, 2003

I'm a reporter, and I gotta tell you, I don't have any urge to "nip and tuck," or to embellish, or make stuff up. It's pretty simple. Describe accurately what people tell you in interviews and what documents say. Run it past your internal bullshit detector. If you're uncomfortable with the facts because they don't conform to your prejudices, take it as a learning experience and toss out those prejudices. Above all, don't make shit up. Jesus, it's really fucking simple.

I'm fortunate enough that I don't have to worry if I'm writing the truth. I just do it. I guess Hepola never got into the habit of telling the truth. Maybe it's a generational thing.

If I could talk to Jayson Blair, I would urge him to kill himself, but only after stewing in his emotional pain for a few more weeks. He's an asshole who gives reporters a bad name. Hepola appears to be not much better.

They should put down their glasses of scotch and grow up. Or, in Blair's case, kill himself.

If you're reading this, Jayson, please, do us a favor. Off yourself.
posted by Holden at 5:07 AM on May 17, 2003

I actually swore off treating stories in the newspaper as the gospel in 5th grade. For whatever reason, I was being interviewed for an essay I wrote about "TV-Turnoff week" (hell yes, I watched TV that week. We're talking Simpsons in its prime back then). My 5th grade teacher flipped because it was actually coherent - as opposed to the writings of the average fifth-grader - and even arranged for a disinterested reporter from a weak-selling local newspaper to come in and interview me.

When the column came out I found THIRTY factual errors in a 250-word column. She got the jist of the story correct, though, so I don't think anyone minded, least of all my parents. It's much easier to just make up shit if you know the jist of the story, I suppose. Very, very, very heavy dose of cynicism to get at an early age - next time I appeared in the newspaper it was under the police reports.

I know I shouldn't generalize based upon this one case, and indeed, I tried to believe that "reputable" newspapers such as The New York Times would be much, much more accurate than a puny little local newspaper - but I was wrong. If anything I imagine this goes on much, much more than most people would care to believe, but few men have the audacity to fabricate INTERVIEWS concerning FRONT PAGE STORIES - which is why Jayson got caught. If he hadn't started covering front page stories he would never have gotten caught. I've read some of his columns after-the-fact - they don't set off my b.s. detector at all. If I didn't know what I know about Jayson Blair I wouldn't even think of questioning his columns - they're so standard. That's what scares me.
posted by Veritron at 8:16 AM on May 17, 2003

They should put down their glasses of scotch and grow up. Or, in Blair's case, kill himself.

If you're reading this, Jayson, please, do us a favor. Off yourself.

Surprised your "internal bullshit detector" didn't go off as you typed this, Holden. Might be time for a tune-up.
posted by digaman at 8:53 AM on May 17, 2003

holden comments paint a picture for me of the kind of reporter who wouldn't know what was going on if it bit him in the ass.
posted by quonsar at 4:18 PM on May 17, 2003

Really, quonsar? Why do you say that? I'm pissed off at a "reporter" who made stuff up, and at a mediocre essayist who writes that she has told so many lies in her lifetime that she's not sure if she's making stuff up when she writes journalism. Why does that make me someone who wouldn't know what's going on if it bites me in the ass? Please explain your reasoning.

After nearly 20 years of writing accurate, award-winning journalism, I believe I do have a good handle on reality. If you have evidence to the contrary, please let me know.
posted by Holden at 7:06 AM on May 18, 2003

I'm a reporter, and I gotta tell you, I don't have any urge to "nip and tuck,"

Er, just to clarify: I'm not a reporter and have no plans to become one; I write (amateur) fiction, for the most part. But I can certainly imagine the "nip and tuck" urge being fairly common journalistic practice, even if the majority of stories are untainted.
posted by Tlogmer at 12:44 PM on May 18, 2003

Holden: I can't speak for quonsar, but I suspect a lot of people were as put off as I was by your general tone, which combined smug self-righteousness ("Above all, don't make shit up. Jesus, it's really fucking simple... I'm fortunate enough that I don't have to worry if I'm writing the truth. I just do it...") and over-the-top assholery ("If I could talk to Jayson Blair, I would urge him to kill himself"). You may, for all anyone here knows, be an excellent reporter. But you sound like just another MeFi blowhard. And I don't think anybody over the age of 30 believes anything is "really fucking simple," let alone telling the truth.
posted by languagehat at 2:14 PM on May 18, 2003

I have always assumed that all or most quotes are, to a certain extent, cleaned up. Do you take out the "ums" "likes" "I means" and other unnecessary noise in the quotes? If so, why? It's not such a big step from doing that into streamlining the quote into a cleaner version of what you think the speaker meant. And there the line gets murky. I think there's a huge abyss between the sort of journalistic truth Hepola is talking about and the outright made-up falsities that Blair committed, but because she confronts it head on instead of dancing around it some people here are giving her a hard time.

Holden, how nice for you that the giant gaping hole where your heart is supposed to be allows you to see things in such black and white clarity. I guess you've never made any mistakes in your life, which goes a long way in explaining your lack of maturity. Egging someone on to suicide. Classy, dude, very classy.

Er, what languagehat said.
posted by onlyconnect at 2:32 PM on May 18, 2003

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