david cay johnston, bruce chatwin, pitcairn trials

A few random notes picked up in recent days:
A terrific interview with David Cay Johnston, the NYT’s great tax reporter. Interesting insight into the mind of a certain kind of journalist. He’s awesome, but I think he kids himself a bit when he says he’s not ideological — he clearly is. His dodges (“I mean, I can show you reviews of my book that say that I am a populist, that I am a classic conservative, that I am a progressive, that I am a liberal Democrat. I’m glad to see that, that’s good. I’m not an ideologue. If anything I am a professional skeptic”) read like, well, dodges.
It’s an interesting question whether there’s room for a guy like that at a newspaper. His tone clearly belongs at a place like The New Republic or another font of muscular opinion journalism, but his talent is such that he doesn’t deserve to be marginalized at a place like, well, The New Republic, where he’ll only be read by a few tens of thousands. He certainly makes the NYT a better paper, but he also certainly plays into the NYT’s ideological weakness.
– Been reading a lot on Bruce Chatwin, the travel auteur mentioned a few posts back. Such an interesting fellow, although he (not unlike Johnston) offers some warning signs of what not to do.
Johnston certainly doesn’t make things up, but he writes from a clear ideological perspective — which makes his work wonderful but perhaps (?) out of place in the daily newspaper of record.
Chatwin, in contrast, occasionally made things up. Parts of his books were fabricated. At times he tried the old dodge that a certain amount of fabrication was, well, expected by readers. Some of his books he labeled fiction in hidden places, but the fact they were all about this fellow named Bruce who was talking to real people in real places made it clear he had no intention of tearing down the fourth wall.
Now, Chatwin was writing books, not works of journalism. For better or worse, people have grown more used to fibbing in books than in newspapers and magazines. (Does anyone really think David Sedaris’ stories are all literally true? Come on.) But the basic lie of it all remains — people like Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski told falsehoods much larger than anything Jayson Blair did. And they’re globally acclaimed.
(It also helps that they had roughly 1,000 times the talent Blair did.)
I don’t have any wise summary points here — just that people have different expectations of objectivity from different sources, and that some people manage to work outside those expectations. A lot of the time, they produce brilliant work — Johnston and Chatwin and Kapuscinski alike. But it’s unfortunate that every time a journalist writes something of great value, it seems to be tainted, either with perspective or with fabrication. Maybe our expectations are off. Or maybe the writers’ expectations are. Johnston wants the imprimatur of The New York Times on his stories, but isn’t willing to play by the down-the-middle rules most newspapers enforce. Chatwin wants the bracing power of non-fiction but doesn’t want to play by the rules of Always Telling The Truth.
(About Chatwin’s most famous book, The Songlines, about nomadic Aboriginal Australians: “In Songlines, Chatwin takes leave of the facts about the people he met and the places he went. Had Songlines been fiction this would have been forgivable; but Chatwin refused to have his theory regarding the nomadic nature of man reduced to fiction. [Biographer Nicholas] Shakespeare took the time to interview the many people Chatwin spoke with while researching The Songlines. It is very clear they felt completely betrayed by Chatwin. More damningly, they point out Chatwin did not, in fact, spend much time with actual Aboriginals.”)
Another Chatwin link here, touching on his brilliant “The Coup,” one of my favorite bits of travel/foreign reportage, and which may have also been partially fabricated. I just hate being disappointed by the people who I want to be my writing heroes.
– For those of you, like me, too interested in the Pitcairn Island sex trials for your own good, here are the hearing docs from the pre-trial appeal. And Wikipedia has great day-by-day summaries of last fall’s trial testimony. That second link makes for crazy reading for me, since I know most of them. (Well, in that reporter-reportee sense.)