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Getting It Straight October 29, 2012

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, Odd Words, publishing, Toulouse Street.
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Let me get this right out front: this piece has not been fact checked. Hell, on a good day I manage to swat all the homonyms that jump up on this screen like roaches on toast. And at the end of the day Toulouse Street is more about fidelity than facts. Not an unusual state of affairs according to James Pogue, who says the problem with the famously aggressive fact checking of magazines like The New Yorker is it collides with “the emerging new essay…trying to do something that is obviously art” in which writers change facts.

Fortunately, I spent the morning with a panel of the checkers and the checked–local magazine veterans Pogue, Nathaniel Rich, and Chris Rose–who have been on both sides of the fact check desk at publications including The Paris Review, GQ, The New Yorker and The Oxford American. All appear in the current issue of Ox Am, including Pogue’s piece “Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker”. Rich was fiction editor of The Paris Review and worked as fact checker at The New Yorker where even the poetry and fiction is fact checked “which really surprised some of the poets.” His piece in the current Ox Am is about bird watching and we have absolutely no idea if a Connecticut warbler is exactly the size Rich represented with his hand. However, since you can’t see this on the podcast we have decided to let it pass in honor of the greater truth. In the middle was Chris Rose, who hold the Brittany Spears beat at the Times Picayune among other duties, who put his case plainly: I just write it the way I’m pretty sure it happened.”

The problem with the approach Pogue describes, citing Dr. Hunter S. Thompson as the textbook illustration, is that for most writers “just making stuff up . . . completely destroys your credibility” and ends up just creating a media event a la James Frey. Still, the panel title was “New South Journalism” and depending on how you parse that sentence, it might include HST’s famous description from Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail of how to handle an uncommitted delegate. Or bats. The panelists made clear, however, such nonsense is not going to get in the mainstream of American publishing unless dressed as the deli delivery guy. It may, however, come to prevail in the online world. Rose noted that reporters filed copy directly onto NOLA.COM at the same time it was sent to the without passing through the copy desk. There were some howlers among the examples but Chris Rose’s probably deserves its 15 minutes in print somewhere. Trying to describe the important of Cosimo Matasa’s recording studio to this history of rock-and-roll, he wrote for the upcoming Ox Am music edition that Matasa was making rock-and-roll “before Dick Clark and Ed Sullivan ever laced up their blue suede shoes.” Until the fact checker called him to ask if either of these gentlemen were noted for wearing blue suede shows. I think you can see where this is going (and it not skip to 54:40 on the podcast), but you won’t read that stylistic bit in the upcoming Ox Am.

[The topic seemed to have leaked out of the room into a poetry interview/reading hours later, when Louisiana Poet Laureate Julie Kane shared an anecdote about the poet she knows who was published in The New Yorker and was told that the constellation he mentioned could not possibly have been in the sky at the time of day and year the poem was describing. "He was surprised they didn't call his lady friend to make sure she absolutely was in the sleeping bag next to him that night," she said.]

The panelists spent two-thirds of their alloted an awful lot of time on fact checking, but Rich’s tales about bird watchers at Grand Isle means I’m going to have to go back and unskip his article when I get a minute. (Nothing personal, Nathaniel, I just don’t have time to read a magazine one and through, and the leisure time for second passes through my magazine stack is measured in feet on one side of my couch), and on the transition away from pulp-and-polish to digital media Rose, who’s piece on the Ox Am was about the gradual demise of the city’s newspaper the Times-Picayune summed it up best “I make something you can hold in your hand at the end of the day–a story, a book, a newspaper–and after I’ve worked my ass off and bled, where is it?”

This is all good fun, whether the panelists are trying to on-up each other with the best example of overzealous fact-checking or when Rich tell us about his week in trip to Grand Isle to find birdwatchers in their natural environment, but there is a long, thoughtful discussion of the evolution away from print toward digital about midway through the podcast and I don’t have time to transcribe and which you really ought to listen to. Jump to 31:06 and listen through 40:22 if you are as pressed as time for I am. Bob Mann poses the question, Pogue answers first and Rich second, and Rose gives the coup de grace.

Podcast: New South Journalism – Louisiana Book Festival 2012

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