In this week's NYT book review section, Jennifer B. McDonald offer a fascinating and well-crafted review of what sounds like an interesting book ("In the Details: ‘The Lifespan of a Fact,’ by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal"):
Under consideration in this essay is “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which is less a book than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two tenacious combatants, over questions of truth, belief, history, myth, memory and forgetting. In one corner is Jim Fingal, who as an intern for the literary magazine The Believer in 2005 (or it might have been 2003 — sources disagree) signed on for what he must have thought would be a straightforward task: fact-checking a 15-page article. In the other corner is D’Agata, who thought he had made a deal with The Believer to publish not just an article but a work of Art — an essay already rejected by Harper’s Magazine because of “factual inaccuracies” — that would find its way to print unmolested by any challenge to its veracity. “Lifespan” is the scorecard from their bout, a reproduction of their correspondence over the course of five (or was it seven?) years of fact-checking.
Ms. McDonald takes Fingal's side, ending her essay "Stay true, young Jim. Stay true." She indignantly cites example after example of D'Agata's Truthiness, adding comments like "If you fancy yourself a member of the reality-based community, here is where you might start feeling twitchy." She characterizes D'Agata's position this way:
His duty is not to accuracy, nor to Levi. His duty is to Truth. And when an artist works in service of Truth, fidelity to fact is irrelevant. So too is any sense of professional decency, it seems.
But I wonder whether Ms. McDonald has ever tried applying Fingal's naive skepticism in reading the paper she writes for, including the columnists and the science section and the sports section and the political reporting; or tried reading the allegedly factual parts of other mass media in a similar spirit. In these days of well-indexed web archives, it's not hard to find the same sorts of problems that Fingal did.
In an earlier post on some particularly careless science writing, I noted that
… to insist on the concept of "fact" in this context is a recipe for frustration. […] I've concluded that "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.
A journalism professor wrote in response:
It's probly worth bearing in mind, tho, that the comment's equally true of much of what happens in coverage of politics, economics and the like; see how long it takes you to find an assertion in the press that Nixon was impeached because of the efforts of Woodward and Bernstein. Or, on the other side of the fence, that the Iron Curtain collapsed on Ronald Reagan's watch. Both sorts of morality play are, in fact and implication, false, but — as you correctly note — they're lessons in how the world ought to work more than accounts of how it does.
For better or worse, that's a function of journalism; it transmits cultural norms and empirical data in roughly equal proportions. The risk is that the audience can't (or doesn't have any reason to) tell the difference.
However, I doubt that many of the writers involved would be nearly as passionate as D'Agata in defending their right to make stuff up. They prefer a clear (though false) narrative, a telling (though fictional) detail, an impressive (though invented) statistic — but their motivations are more likely to be laziness and shallow self-interest than devotion to Art, and I'd be surprised to hear any of them arguing that their fictions are truer than fact.