Journalism turned yellow, and now the lines blur between fact and fiction

Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward. They changed journalism forever.
Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward changed journalism forever.

The writing business and the newspaper business are not like they used to be. Then again, maybe the writing business and the newspaper business were never the way I thought they were, and I was neck-deep in both of them. The sacred  world of non-fiction is experiencing the brunt of the radical changes within the publishing industry.

In reality, the core mechanisms of change has been coming for a long time, but only recently have an abundance of writers felt confident enough in their own story-telling abilities to venture into an intriguing new, evolving genre of narrative non-fiction.

There was a time when fiction and non-fiction had a definite dividing line.

Fiction was a pack of lies well told.

Non-fiction was a cold, hard, no-nonsense look at the truth, the way it was, the way it happened, the way it should be remembered.

Now the lines have begun to blur.

There are still forms of non-fiction in its purest of forms. These are the scholarly works where virtually every word, every line, every thought, every fact has been documented and properly notated. These pages are filled with fine print, footnotes, and ibids.

There was a time when journalism was considered a sacred truth.

Old school reporters were told to stand up alongside those front-page headlines, place their hands on the Bible, and give the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help us god, faithfully filling those newspaper columns with a concoction of who, what, why, when, where, and how.

Nothing else.

Just the facts, ma ‘am.

Anything else would be regarded as yellow journalism.

By the time I entered the newspaper business, yellow was already becoming quite fashionable as the color of the day.

As we patrolled our regular beats each day, only one thing was for certain: find a story that was lurid and scandalous, and we had a chance to see our by-lines in bold print on the front page.

Find something good to say about somebody, and our by-lines would be buried somewhere on page forty-three of Section G, destined for the bottom of a bird cage.

So we learned to track down a few bits of information, twist a few facts, revise a few quotes, put a few well-chosen words in the mouths of people who were already too nervous to talk to the press and, viola, there was our name right below the nameplate. As a police reporter, I found a small two-line report that a homeless man had been found passed out alongside the expressway. He had a scratch on his neck. I wrote: Before dawn this morning, police discovered an unconscious man lying beside the freeway with his throat slashed. His identify was missing, and his shoes had obviously been stolen. My piece of journalism made it above the nameplate. I mean it was at the top of the page, and the editors were drooling for more.

In those days, however, we did need to have a minimum of two sources to corroborate a critical fact in a news story, and those sources had to have names. We had to print those names.

Then along came Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and their mysterious “Deep Throat,” and newspapers realized that maybe two named sources were no longer necessary, not if a reporter could dramatically establish that one really good inside informant had all of the facts.

Names didn’t matter.

Not anymore, they didn’t.

It was all about the story.

And publishing, virtually overnight, came one step closer to living in a world where the line between fiction and non-fiction could be erased at a moment’s notice. If you had to wait to make sure the facts were correct and miss the final two o’clock deadline, then forget it and run with the story you had.

“Have you talked to the detective?” my editor asked.


“Do you know him pretty well?”

“I do.”

“Do you have a pretty good idea of what he would say about a murder like this?”

“He and I have talked about a lot of murders in the past six months.”

“Then quote him.”

“He may not like it.”

The editor shrugged. “Give him a couple of big words that will impress the chief,” he said.

I did.

He loved it. By the end of the next day, the detective actually thought the quote was his own.

All over the country, the hard-core news story was dead, dying, or at least turning blue. Pure non-fiction, as far as journalism was concerned lost its holy perch on the journalistic ladder. Reporters were writing feature stories that read and sounded a lot like short stories.

The world of writing had begun to re-invent itself. Everything printed, I fear, was partly fact and partly fiction, partly truth and contradiction. Narrative non-fiction and the non-fiction novel weren’t far behind.

ref=sib_dp_kdCaleb Pirtle III is author of Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk. It is non-fiction. But how true are the stories told as truth? Nobody knows. Nobody remembers. All authors can do is take the facts they find and the facts they are told, and write the best they can can. You can click the book cover and read more on Amazon about the fights and feuds of the Giddings oil boom.

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