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Aping the Masters

I hereby declare my intention to single-handedly restore journalism to its reckless glory of yore. Well, not quite single-handedly—I am going to get help from a stuffed monkey.

In the post-Jayson Blair era, individual journalists are wearing their ethics on their sleeves; while at the institutional level, appropriate practice is being paid lip- service to in an even showier way, in the form of the newly outspoken ombudsman—or as The New York Times would have it, the public editor. Everyone in the industry is desperate to aver their own professional responsibility, and to distance themselves from the taint of those horrible, horrible, naughty lying liars like Blair and Glass and Barnicle and so on. And, really, in addition to being a canny (if overdue) PR maneuver, it’s all good fun. Jack Shafer’s media criticism for Slate is always engagingly smart and bitchy, Tom Scocca (recently installed to man the New York Observer’s Off the Record column) is sharp and thorough, and the Times’ Daniel Okrent is, in my opinion, a better read than several of their longtime columnists.

Beyond the mean-spirited pleasure of watching big shots bitch-slap each other silly, there is of course the legitimate business of advancing truth and fairness in reporting—and all that. However, as other observers have pointed out, the lying was, well, kinda cool. I mean, put aside this recent batch of plagiarists, frauds and—as Shafer has labeled them—fabulists; there are more historically anointed, almost Olympian, practitioners of those breaches whom we still (in the biz, anyway) revere. Guys like Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, H.L. Mencken and Mike Royko all—to be indelicate—just made shit up. And, frankly, it was really good shit.

Of course, it wasn’t true and, therefore, it wasn’t actually reportage. So, anyone playing it off as such has taken advantage of his or her readership’s trust; eventually, that stuff will probably bite you in the ass, one way or another. Mitchell, for example, wrote a series of brilliant profiles set in New York City’s Fulton Fish Market for The New Yorker, which published them as fact. When published in book form in 1948, Mitchell revealed that one of the primary characters, Mr. Flood, was not a real man, but an amalgamated character. In other words, a fiction. It’s easy to speculate, then, that Mitchell’s famous and unending writing block (which lasted decades) was in some way a product of his journalistic approach: A reporter doesn’t block, because facts are always there before you. But if you’ve got the perfectionist’s urge to improve what you observe, if you’re making the stuff up. . . .

Though many of the voices in his columns were just surrogates, the Chicago Tribune’s Mike Royko used a great tool to circumvent any retroactive charges of fabulism: irony. Only the truly dim could mistake the antics and pronouncements of Uncle Chester, Aunt Wanda and, best of all, Slats Grobnik for actual news (I mean, c’mon, Slats Grobnik?); even so, there were complaints. In a recent encomium to Royko, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg recalls a column in which Royko parodied Pat Buchanan’s anti-immigration stance by claiming that Mexico was a silly country that had contributed little beyond tequila to world culture and should, therefore, be colonized and turned over to Club Med. Mexican and Mexican-American advocacy groups went totally Alamo. If Royko were alive and writing today, he’d have to keep a very careful eye on his Pulitzer.

The thing is, the writing was so bloody good: Read Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret. It’s just a stunning piece of work, whatever embellishments it may contain. And it’s significant to note that Glass and Blair, etc., didn’t get shitcanned from gigs at the West Podunk Cattle & Feed Intelligencer. Personal charm and politicking aside, these guys got plum gigs because, very apparently, they wrote what we like to read. We remain awed by Mencken, Liebling, Mitchell, Royko, etc., because they wrote so goddamn well.

Not that I’m defending the lies. First, I do believe that it is the height of professional irresponsibility to attempt to pass fiction off as fact; and, more to the point, as Jack Shafer has written, it’s tantamount to an admission of incompetence—and, as such, should constitute a mortifying blow to a journalist’s pride. This is not to mention the fact that, in today’s professional climate of hypervigilance, it’s career suicide.

But I’m all for taking a page from Royko’s playbook in service of bold writing and—dirty word, here—fun. So, I’m unveiling a new voice in this column, one which I, here and now, fully disclose as mostly fictional. In the mouth of this character, I will put pithy, sarcastic, narratologically convenient but wholly untrue or politically incorrect statements, thereby deflecting any criticism of me personally. However, in recognition of some people’s persistent immunity to irony, I have chosen to make this character so obviously, so blatantly unreal as to completely endrun any accusations of journalistic chicanery.

The new character will be the sock monkey made for me by my sister for my birthday several years ago. It was intended to be the first of a collection of 100 I would amass as writing assistants (in microcosmic tribute to the infinite number that can type Hamlet). He’s a little worse for wear these days: His tail’s fastened on with a safety pin, and where his right eye once was there’s now an approximately eye-sized pin bearing an image of Elvis Costello’s face—hence the monkey’s official name, Sock Monkey with the Elvis Costello Eye. (Smece, for short.) Any time I need a fact, opinion or perspective that I couldn’t possibly get from an actual source, I will call upon Smece, who is charmingly blunt and vulgar. A real everymonkey.

Like so: What are the chances this conceit is Pulitzer fodder, Smece?

“Fucking A.”

—John Rodat

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