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The Differences Between Truth and Honesty

by Randolph T. Holhut

Most of what you read in the papers and see on TV is truthful, but not honest
(AR) Somehow, can't get outraged over the news that Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith was forced to resign because she made up quotes and characters in some of her columns.

I know I should be outraged that she violated the first commandment of journalism: thou shalt not make stuff up. But I am not. It's not that my standards have changed. Rather, I just feel unsettled about what happened to her.

To me, Smith was by far the best writer on the staff of the Globe. Her columns were consistently fine -- fine enough that she was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize this year. Her talent was so great that my first reaction to the news was Why? Why did someone as good as her feel compelled to doctor her work? It's like discovering Greg Maddux throws spitballs or Mark McGwire uses a corked bat.

Perhaps my respect for her work is affecting my reaction to Smith's forced resignation. In a city that remains stubbornly racist, it's hard to not root for a strong black woman who wrote forcefully and didn't care who objected to her views.

The Globe went out of its way to treat her fairly and explain fully what happened. The editors allowed her one last chance to give her side of the story and apologize to her readers, and the editors offered their mea culpas and pledged to "renew our commitment to the truth."

But I still can't get upset at Smith. And I don't believe, as others do, that she disgraced the profession. To me, that is not the point. The discussion that the Smith case should spark is the difference between truth and honesty.

The problem with journalism is that a reporter can cover a story, dutifully and accurately quote the people involved in it, and write a story that is honest, but not necessarily truthful.

In his 1941 book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," James Agee, then a reporter for Fortune, ridiculed the concept of journalistic truth.

Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliche and complacency of journalism: but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism," he wrote. "I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what any even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those inachievable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential falsehood.

Journalism is true in the sense that everything is true to the state of being and to what conditioned and produced it (which is also, but less so perhaps, a limitation of art and science): but that is about as far as its value goes...Journalism is not to be blamed for this; no more than a cow is to be blamed for not being a horse.

In considering these words, it helps to know that Fortune assigned Agee and photographer Walker Evans in 1936 to do a story about the lives of tenant farmers in the Deep South and that Fortune rejected the reporting the two had done because what they had produced after spending several weeks with three farm families wasn't what the editors had wanted or expected. It wasn't proper journalism, in Fortune's view, to view these families as people rather than abstract representations of a social problem that can be neatly tied up in a few pages of text and photos. They wanted truth, not honesty.

Marc Cooper, a great journalist in the tradition of George Seldes and I.F. Stone, once wrote about objectivity in reporting as not being a "dispassionate equilibrium of pros and cons" but that it's "an ongoing process, a good faith investigation, an open-minded search that you are willing to sign on to, accepting that it more often than not takes you to some unexplored and unfinished edge."

That's the difference between truth and honesty. Cooper's reporting philosophy is rarely practiced by those in the corporate news media. Most of what you read in the papers and see on TV is truthful, but it's not honest. And sometimes, as in the case of the first few weeks of news coverage of the Monica Lewinsky story, it's not even true.

It's the mortal sins of journalism that get me more upset than the venial sins of one columnist. I am not in favor of introducing fiction into factual pieces of journalism, but I view what Smith did as a venial rather than a mortal sin. The essential truth of her work held up -- especially in her work that exposed widespread discrimination and racism at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and helped to bring about reforms in that agency. The sin was that she improperly cut corners in four recent columns and knew better, and it has unfortunately tainted the rest of her work.

But timing is everything. Now Smith is unfairly lumped with Stephen Glass, a twentysomething striver who didn't just make up a quote or two, but created lengthy feature stories out of thin air for major magazines. You get the feeling that everyone in the profession couldn't wait to pile on Smith. Seldes once called this an "old Roman dirty trick" that can be summed up in the phrase "falsum in unum, falsum in omnium" (false in one thing, false in everything), which Seldes called "a crooked way of judgment."

And now Globe managing editor Matthew Storin has successfully lobbied the American Society of Newspaper Editors to rescind the Distinguished Writing Award it gave Smith this year, even though none of the columns that Smith submitted contained fabrications.

Smith has been subjected to the journalistic equivalent of being marched under armed guard in front of the regiment and having her stripes torn off her uniform by the commander; meanwhile, Glass is being offered movie deals. Smith's punishment does not fit the crime. She may have occasionally wavered in being truthful, but her work was steadfastly honest.

Smith consistently stuck up for the disenfranchised and the powerless in Boston -- people who never would have appeared in the Globe otherwise. She made a mistake, and she has paid dearly for that mistake. But journalism doesn't have a monopoly on truth or honesty. Art isn't bound by the conventions of newspaper reporting, but it often reveals more about the human condition than The New York Times does on any given day.

Poetry has always been Smith's first love. She is a national poetry slam champion, in addition to being a jazz musician, a playwright and author. Three years ago, she told Dan Kennedy, the Boston Phoenix' media critic, about her struggle to combine poetry and journalism.

"The line between the two has been increasingly blurred," Smith said. "A lot of my poetic work is inspired by things I've encountered in my work as a journalist. If I'm doing journalism, I'm tied in to doing facts. If I'm doing poetry, I can create a world. So on the one hand it's the perfect escape from having to deal with facts all the time."

Smith is hardly the first journalist to have been tripped up by journalism's insistence on facts. In time, the controversy over the veracity of her columns will fade. She's now free of the conventions of newspapering, and free to create her vision of the truth. I hope she makes the most of this chance.

Randolph T. Holhut is a freelance journalist and editor of "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books)

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Albion Monitor July 13, 1998 (

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