Michael J. O'Neill

Fact & Fiction = Faction

VTR Date: July 18, 1984

Guest: O'Neill, Michael J.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mike O’Neill
Title: “Fact + Fiction = Faction”
VTR: 7/18/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Today’s guest has joined me before, both here and on “The Editor’s Desk”, my other weekly television program, always to examine some phase or other of American journalism, and with good reason, for Mike O’Neill was the long-time, highly respected editor of The Daily News, and, at his retirement, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. I’ve invited him to day to join me, as other distinguished journalists already have, and many more will in the period just ahead, to illumine a bit what, for their state, is such an uncommonly controversial question: what is the legitimate role of creative presumption or imaginings, in presumed works or journalistic fact? What are the necessary limits upon “faction” in journalism, that strange modern mixture of fact and fiction?

Well, when Mike O’Neill was its editor, the Daily News had to deal with reportorial inventiveness, to use a nonpejorative word. Now, at the New Yorker magazine, the question comes up again. How legitimate is it to recount the events of the world with a little help from our friends? From words that perhaps better than anything else carry the essence of truthfulness, but that do so without the benefit of total accuracy?

Mike, thanks for joining me again here at THE OPEN MIND.

O’NEILL: It’s great to be with you again.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s see…

O’NEILL: On such a non-controversial subject.

HEFFNER: Yeah, indeed. So let’s see how you feel about it when I ask you what your own feelings are about this dispute about fact, fiction, faction.

O’NEILL: Well, I naturally have to come down on the side of, in opposition to faking, or developing phony facts simply to produce a better atmosphere or more effective kind of a story. In other words, I cannot support the thesis of the New Yorker writer who suggested that manipulating the facts ad creating conversations that didn’t occur, or putting events in places that were not actually, where they did not occur, I don’t think that’s defensible. But, having said that, I think that the whole issue of fact versus truth; the whole issue of reality versus pseudoreality, to use Daniel Burstyn’s phrase, is a very complex one, and not susceptible to some of the simplistic kind of automatic responses that we’ve seen from some of my colleagues.

HEFFNER: Well, you say “automatic responses”. I’ve had the feeling that there was a little bit of a holier-than-thou about some of the responses.

O’NEILL: Well, that’s right. And I think that, as long as I…for example, I think The New York Times wrote a very good editorial trying to make a distinction between fact and truth, and to argue – and I think persuasively – that no journalist ought to deliberately change the reality as he sees it simply for, to produce a more effective story. But, what is fact? When do we know that a fact is, in fact, true? That’s not as simple as it looks. And, as a matter of fact, we are dealing all the time with issues an events…for example, we’ve…an earthquake happened, and we know that it, and we can report that it is an earthquake and not a tornado. But, beyond that, the very, very serious problem we have all the time in journalism as to what is true, what is a fact, what isn’t a fact…Beyond that, there’s another whole large area in which we are constantly rearranging the events that we see into the form of stories. We are selecting some things we see and some things we don’t see. We are making news. We are creating news. Is the news that we create a true fact, or is it something that we have created? Is it reality? Is it…I think those are very large issues.

HEFFNER: Well, didn’t you journalists take on the mantle of interpreters? Didn’t you take on the mantle of analysts of what goes on in the world? And with that obligation to present an understanding of the world, and with the limited space at your disposal, aren’t you, of necessity, going to move events around on the page or when that red eye is turned on us?

O’NEILL: Yeah. Yes, you do move events around. And you actually create news. I think Daniel Burstyn, as I mentioned a minute ago, wrote a very provocative book in which he suggested that a large proportion of the so-called news that we read or see on television these days is actually a pseudo-event, pseudo-news, pseudo-facts. Facts that were created either by newsmakers for the specific purpose of influencing the public, or in which the news reporters have gone out and actually created controversy where it may not have actually, already occurred. What I’m saying is that we must not mislead the public into believing that we merely see spontaneous events, spontaneous controversies occurring, and that we do not ever create them, and that we do not ever rearrange them so that the reality that is ultimately presented to the reader is not totally a spontaneous natural phenomenon, if you will, but he results, in many cases, at least in part, of this process that we’re talking about.

HEFFNER: Dan Burstyn was very concerned about this so-called pseudo-event.

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: But he saw it as a means of manipulating. A means by which candidates, newspeople, anyone, manipulated the public consciousness. But what about the journalist’s sincere effort to interpret the world to his reader, in which he needs, again perhaps for the sake of space, for the sake of understanding, to rearrange, not to change, not to omit, not to invent, but to rearrange ideas, information in such a way that the pubic comes out better understanding what has happened?

O’NEILL: Well, I think your interpretation and analysis are legitimate pursuits of journalists, but we have to label it. Robert Manning, for example, the former editor of The Atlantic, in talking about the controversy of The New Yorker, suggests, said that there’s nothing wrong with, say, composite, composite views of a, of the views of many people being boiled into one composite, as long as you tell, identify that and tell the reader. But what I’m really talking about is something where the whole technique of journalism ultimately involves a lot of creativity, and it involves rearranging the events in ways that we ought to also be concerned about, not just with the provable facts in, say, the New Yorker case, but in our own reporting. Let me give you an example: I was an editor in the Washington bureau of the United Press at one time. And it’s in the summer doldrums. There’s not one single story to rub against another. We were desperate for something to put on the wire. I happened to see a tiny little paragraph in The Washington Post reporting that a grocery chain had raised its coffee prices. I pounced on this and sent about a dozen reporters on Capitol Hill and elsewhere out to hit congressmen and get quotes about how outrageous it was that the coffee prices were going up. We then precipitated an investigation – By the way, the congressmen are always eager to be quoted, so they, whether they knew anything about the subject or not, they gave us a lot of great quotes – We precipitated an…got a congressional investigation going into the outrageous devolvement of the coffee price increases. To make a long story short, we converted a small paragraph about one grocery chain raising its coffee prices into a major national story and controversy within about three days. And by the second week of that story, and what was by then, what then what we call running story, we had broken the coffee market, we had a major congressional investigation going on, we had the Brazilian government sending a delegation to Washington for4 emergency conferences about their troubles with the drought and what have you down there in Brazil, and then question then is, was that a real controversy? Was that a real…Was the crisis a real crisis, or was it one that we created?

HEFFNER: Which was it, Mike?

O’NEILL: I think it was one we created.

HEFFNER: Did you go to confession after that, or was this the first time…

O’NEILL: I am now confessing… (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Were you the original new journalist?

O’NEILL: Right. Exactly. No! I don’t regard that as new journalism. New journalism is still another phenomenon. All I…

HEFFNER: Did they make up the story, you mean?

O’NEILL: …All I’m saying is that technique in which you, a congressman makes a statement, or a president makes a statement, you immediately rush off…the rule of journalism is that you nearly rush off o the supposed opposition and get a counterstatement. It’s what Gloria Steinem calls the prize fight school of journalism; you have to have two people fighting at all times. Even if the fight isn’t there to begin with, you automatically, the way our system, journalistic system works, our adversarial system works, you automatically go out and try to find someone who will attack what he had to say.

HEFFNER: Mike, at least you didn’t make up the original little new item.

O’NEILL: The little news item, no, that’s true.

HEFFNER: You said the new journalism is something else. What other sins do you have to confess?

O’NEILL: I’m not confessing to any sins as far as new journalism is concerned. New journalism is an attempt to use the very, very detailed descriptions, dialogue, etcetera, to recreate the actuality of an event, of a historic event or something that’s in the news. It does not necessarily mean fiction, as a lot of people suppose. And here again, we come to these terrible problems of what is true and what isn’t true. Here, let’s take another example: I used to cover the police beat in Brooklyn. An at that time it was routine that you would, a story would break, you would go to the detectives, and the detectives and/or the police chief, or the commissioner, depending how big of a story it is, would then tell you what happened. They would recreate that event, and then we would report it as fact. What was fact is that they said that it was fact, but we had no clue. We often did not have a clue as to whether it was, in fact, a fact. You see? Now, let’s take the new journalists. Let’s take a Jimmy Breslin, for example. His technique is to go out and interview everybody in the neighborhood. Actually go to the scene, sometimes even interviewing people who have turned out to be suspects, and who are ultimately arrested. He works from the bottom up. Now, assuming that his reporting is accurate – and I think that that is still a must here; I’m not yielding a bit on that point – but if you accurately work that story from the bottom up, rather than the conventional way of getting it from some authority, there are many cases in which you get closer to the truth through that technique than you do from working the story from the bottom…from the top down.

HEFFNER: Then what’s your criticism of this approach?

O’NEILL: I didn’t criticize it.

HEFFNER: Ah, but you have, in the past, if I’m not mistaken.

O’NEILL: (Laughter) I criticize…What I do disagree with is, if you go out and, working the story from the bottom up, and where you find descriptions that you would like to have in the story to give it an artistic punch and to give it strong artistic form so it will go over well with readers, if you then make up facts, make up descriptions, make up dialogue, in order to fill in the holes in a story, to give it such nice, full, rounded, strong journalistic drive, that is wrong. I don’t think that is right.

HEFFNER: But you know, when you say…

O’NEILL: But good, hard-digging reporting to recreate what went on as well as you can, that…and using the technique of the novelist, that is telling this in a narrative form through the sights and the sounds and the words of witnesses, I think can be, in many circumstances, can be more effective than quoting the police commissioner who may have a far less accurate view of it all.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you and I both know…and you said you’re not talking about fiction – you and I both know that fiction is sometimes not just stranger than fact, but – instead of the reverse, where people will say, “Well this fact is much stranger than anything anybody can make up”. – But that fiction illuminates. Fiction, taking things for, not for granted, but taking things, let’s say, that are not reflections of an immediate event or not reflections of an accurate conversation that you’ve heard, can present the essence of an event…

O’NEILL: Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: …in a much better fashion.

O’NEILL: Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: What’s your judgment about that?

O’NEILL: Well, I think you…Here again, we have to talk about labels. Charles Dickens, writing about the treatment of youngsters and inner workings of poorhouses in London in his day, wrote about those things in a fictional form. And I suspect did a better job of exposing those wrongs than all of the formalistic journalism of his day. Similarly, some of the novelists of our time, whether it be some of the novelists, for example, reflecting on the Vietnam War, might give us a better view of the interior feelings and impulses an demotions about war than the reportage that some of us were participating in at the time. But it’s labeled as fiction. No one is trying to pretend that it is fact. Now, newspapers, in the nonfiction articles in The New Yorker, you are contracting with the reader to say, “To the best of our knowledge, this, in fact, happened; this is so, and it did, in fact, happen”. And it’s lying when you use the fictional techniques, which can be very good, and try to argue that those are, in fact, facts.

HEFFNER: Mike, I had the feeling that somehow or other that was all, or has been, in the past weeks that this has been discussed, something of a tempest in a teapot inn that, indeed, it wounded as though you fellows in the news business were protecting your intellectual virginity, and you wanted to say, “Well, as long as we label it, it’s okay”. But what do the labels mean to most readers? Are they really involved in the notion: This page is different from that page; this column is different from that column?

O’NEILL: Well, where I go along with you on the tempest in the teapot is where I was trying to suggest a little bit earlier, in that the simple reporting, allegedly, of observable facts if…quote-unquote, because you and I both realize that some things that look like facts aren’t facts, and so forth. But that is a lesser problem in terms of misleading the reader than a lot of the issues that I would raise which have to do with the extent to which we create news, the extent to which we promulgate pseudo-events that are either being produced by politicians or other newsmakers in order to impact the media, that are claims to produce truth, are overblown. We do not…We seldom know what the truth is. We often don’t even, even the facts that we honestly believe are facts, sometimes turn out tomorrow not to be facts. Some things that we present as facts we know not to be true. Here is another example: A terrible experience; I was to cover the McCarthy hearings years ago. And I was with United Press at the time, and McCarthy used to call me up, because I was an editor, on Sunday, every Sunday night, and he said, “You need a new lead for tomorrow’s PM papers, don’t you?” And I said, “Yes”. He knew us as well as we did. And he would then make some outrageous statement which he would make up on the spot. And the rules of the game was I was required to put that statement out on the wires.

HEFFNER: You mean, “Senator McCarthy says…”

O’NEILL: Senator McCarthy said that Simington is a yellow-bellied coward, for example. I would normally call on Simington, and he would then deny it, although he was so slow footed that he would usually wait about three news cycles to get around to issuing a statement. (Laughter) Well, I would often know that what McCarthy said was false. But we would put that on the wire all across the country – and this still goes on, incidentally – and our abilities to correct that, under the system, are not all that great.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but, you see, it’s just that that I question. You say “but you labeled it”. And you labeled it “Senator McCarthy tonight said so and so”. What difference did it make to the reader? What the reader got was the big play on the charge that…

O’NEILL: Exactly. That’s right. And that’s the reason why I say those kinds of flaws in our system are a more serious concern to me than whether or not a conversation took place in a Spanish bar, as Reed said in The New Yorker, or didn’t say in The New Yorker.

HEFFNER: But, you know, that leads me to the question – You say that sort of thing is more of a concern to you – Is that sort of thing inevitable within the framework of American journalism?

O’NEILL: Well, it’s hard to escape. It is hard to escape. You need…Let’s cite another example where we rearrange things: A president gives a speech. I remember covering these presidential election campaigns. A president might decide to deliver a major address on arms control, and deep down in the speech at the page 45 or what have you, he would let fly with a small, side remark about this opponent. We would automatically pull that quote up out of the bottom of the speech and lead with it, and get the comments from his opponent, and we’d get a fight going in the leads of all the stories. And what the president was trying to say to his audience would be absolutely lost in the shuffle. Another example: In the 1980 campaign, one of our reporters, a Daily News reporter, had a long interview with Carter. And way down in the interview he mentions, he drops the phrase “ethnic purity”.

HEFFNER: I remember.

O’NEILL: And we added – rightly or wrongly; I’m not saying this is smart journalism – I’m not saying we did this deliberately to make sure we didn’t put things out of balance – but more inadvertently than otherwise, we ended up leaving that quote in about the seventeenth paragraph. It wasn’t even in the first page in which the story was printed. But Newsweek and other journalists immediately spotted that as something they could whoop up into a controversy. And within three or four days we had a major, major controversy going it he presidential election campaign, all swirling around this one phrase, “ethnic purity”. Question: Was that a real controversy? Was that distorting, pulling facts and so forth out of context? I think it was. And these are the things we need to work on.

HEFFNER: You say “we need to work on”. What do you mean? Who are “we”, and how do “we work on” it?

O’NEILL: Editors…I’m talking mainly about newspaper editors, and we need to work, I think, for example, the whole adversarial approach to journalism, “prize fight school of journalism”, to quote Gloria Steinem again, creates serious distortions, it creates controversies where they do not exist, etcetera. And I think we ought to reduce that.

HEFFNER: Mike, has it ever been different in America?

O’NEILL: I’m not sure that it has, no. I’m not sure that it has, but we’re, of course, constantly trying to improve America, aren’t we?

HEFFNER: Yeah. Fair enough. That’s a…

O’NEILL: Let’s go back to why I think the adversarial approach is wrong. You take Milton for example…stated it so well as philosophy, that if you take, I think he said, “Let falsehood and truth contend with one another, and absolutely you can be sure that truth will ultimately win out”. But the key word is “ultimately”. I mean, that could be years, and the historians then can straighten things out. But truth does not always win out in the short term. And, therefore, just throwing contending positions into an arena and letting them clash with one another, and to crate controversy, is a false claim that that will produce truth.

HEFFNER: Mike, not for a minute did I ask you whether that’s really terribly much different from the way we’ve always been. I didn’t ask that to imply we shouldn’t make an effort. But the question is, first, has it generally been that way; and your answer is, ‘Yes”. Two, do you anticipate, within a commercial news system in which we deliver our news for commercial purposes, do you anticipate that this will be substantially different?

O’NEILL: Well, I don’t know about the word “substantial”, but I do believe – unfortunately, I’m dating myself now – if I look back to when I started out in journalism and look at the way we practice journalism today, I would say there has been substantial improvement over the practices of the early days. Incidentally, one of the improvements being – going back to your point about analysis and interpretation – and that is to try to cut through the, a lot of these claims and counterclaims, and find out where the real facts lie somewhere in between.

HEFFNER: You mean, your version, or the editor’s version, or someone’s version of the real facts. Let’s face that fact.

O’NEILL: (Laughter) Okay. All right. But sometimes our version is better than the contending politicians’ versions, but…So I think there has been substantial progress. I think that editors in newspapers, particularly, are constantly producing, are making progress toward a more responsible, more sophisticated kind of journalism. But the adversarial approach, for example, has, is so deeply embedded in our whole culture that I do not expect that to disappear very soon.

HEFFNER: Mike, to what extent is the commercial nature of our news apparatus responsible, not for this and its origins, but responsible, perhaps, for not being able to rid ourselves of it, as you would wish we would?

O’NEILL: Well, I think that’s a large issue. For example, every day you absolutely have to have a headline. And if you’re in a competitive city like New York, you want one that’s better than the other guy’s headline. And if you don’t have the news lying there ready to be converted into a great headline, then you go out and try to find it, or you try to create it. And that is going to go on, because that’s the competitive nature of our business. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You know, I’m amused you say “a competitive city like New York”, as opposed to a competitive city like Los Angeles or a competitive city like Chicago or a competitive city like Boston.

O’NEILL: Well, that’s true. Yeah, but even in noncompetitive cities they still have the problem of interesting the reader. And, let’s face it, we’re not about to repeal human nature. And human beings seem to like controversy better than non-controversy. They seem to like the exceptional event better than the common event. They like negative news, obviously, better than positive news. So, we’re not going to totally repeal everything, all the faults that I see in our journalistic system. Hopefully, we will remove some of them as time goes on.

HEFFNER: Mike, that’s where I wanted to ask you, where is it written, how can you think that we will make these strides that you want us to make?

O’NEILL: Well, in terms of print journalism, certainly, I think that there is a lot of evidence of movement in this direction. Now, on television, in which we are not participating…

HEFFNER: Dick, I’m going to stop you right there, and you’re going to accuse me of something awful, but I’m just getting the signal that time is up. So you’ve got to come back, Mike, and we’ll continue that talk. Thanks a lot for joining me today.

O’NEILL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.