When I was an undergraduate English major in the late 1960s, one of my instructors, in fact, my favorite when it came to writing instruction, scoffed at the phrase “creative writing.” All writing is creative, he used to say. By that he meant (I think) that the process of writing is one of creation whether you’re writing a news story or the Great American Novel. (I succeeded at the first and failed at the second.)
Remember Janet Cooke?
She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 while a reporter for the Washington Post. It turned out, the story was fiction promoted as fact. The Post returned the Pulitzer and fired Cooke, who later, according to Wikipedia, sold the movie rights for $1.6 million.
In today’s headlines we have a report on the creation of a sensational story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The report tells us that the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and her editors failed Journalism 101 by, among other things, not checking multiple sources or confirming events that were easily confirmable. It wasn't a matter of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story; it was a matter of not getting the facts to begin with.
I wanted to know more about Erdely and so I went to the Wikipedia entry about her. It said she had been a pre-med major at the University of Pennsylvania (not to be confused with the Pennsylvania State University) who ultimately graduated with a degree in journalism. Knowing that the Ivies look down their noses at journalism degrees, I checked the source for this information—Erdely’s own website. As I suspected, she does not have a degree in journalism. Like Cooke (and me), she has a degree in English, and that’s according to her website.
We English majors like to turn a phrase and tell good stories. Facts are something to be manipulated—like digital photographs in Photoshop.
Consider John Berendt. He revealed that he altered the timeline in his “nonfiction” Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in order to create a better story. According to Wikipedia, Berendt has a degree in English from Harvard. What is it with English majors?
Ever since Cooke, who perpetrated her crime against the facts when I was just starting my career as a journalism professor, I’ve thought that the one strength journalism curricula had over English was a course in ethics. If nothing else, an ethics course for English majors could emphasize that if you manipulate the facts—move the Pyramids closer together, for example, which a photographer did for a National Geographic cover—don’t sell your work as nonfiction. Here’s a great yarn based on fact, but it ain’t the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In the meantime, I edited Erdely’s Wikipedia entry, and she now has a degree in English, not journalism, which is only fitting. After all, somebody’s gotta check the facts.