Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Interactive Truth

The New York Times
June 15, 2005
The Interactive Truth

It used to be that the longest unprotected border in the world was that between the United States and Canada. Today it's the one between fact and fiction. If the two cozy up any closer together The National Enquirer will be out of business.

More than 60 percent of the American people don't trust the press. Why should they? They've been reading "The Da Vinci Code" and marveling at its historical insights. I have nothing against a fine thriller, especially one that claims the highest of literary honors: it's a movie on the page. But "The Da Vinci Code" is not a work of nonfiction. If one more person talks to me about Dan Brown's crackerjack research I'm shooting on sight.

The novel's success does point up something critical. We're happier to swallow a half-baked Renaissance religious conspiracy theory than to examine the historical fiction we're living (and dying for) today. And not only is it remarkably easy to believe what we want to believe. It's remarkably easy to find someone who will back us up. Twenty-five years ago George W. S. Trow meditated on this in "Within the Context of No Context." Then it indeed appeared that authority and orthodoxy were wilting in the glare of television. Have we exterminated reason in the meantime?

If you are 6 years old and both your parents read one online, you can be forgiven for not knowing what a newspaper is. You would also be on to something. The news has slipped its moorings. It is no longer held captive by two-inch columns of type or a sonorous 6 p.m. baritone. It has gone on the lam. Anyone can be a reporter - or a book reviewer, TV star, museum guide, podcaster or pundit.

This week The Los Angeles Times announced its intention to exile the square and stodgy voice of authority farther yet. The paper will launch an interactive editorial page. "We'll have some editorials where you can go online and edit an editorial to your satisfaction," the page's editor says. "It's the ultimate in reader participation," explains his boss, Michael Kinsley. Let's hope the interactive editorial will lead directly to the interactive tax return. On the other hand, I hope we might stop short before we get to structural engineering and brain surgery. Some of us like our truth the way we like our martinis: dry and straight up.

Kinsley takes as his model Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute, and which grows by accretion and consensus. Relatedly, it takes as its premise the idea that "facts" belong between quotation marks. It's a winning formula; Wikipedia is one of the Web's most popular sites. I asked a teenager if he understood that it carries a disclaimer; Wikipedia "can't guarantee the validity of the information found here." "That's just so that no one will sue them," he shrugged. As to the content: "It's all true, mostly."

What if we all vote on the truth? We don't need to, because we will be overruled by what becomes a legend most: entertainment. Twenty-one percent of young Americans get their news from comedy shows. Journalism once counted as the first draft of history. Today that would be screenwriting. As Frank Rich reminds us, the enduring line from Watergate - "Follow the money" - was not Deep Throat's. It was William Goldman's. And "Show me the money" was Cameron Crowe, not President Bush.

Evidently Deep Throat himself carped, pre-Watergate, that newspapers failed to get to the bottom of things. Of course apocrypha have always had staying power. That story about the cherry tree was a lie. Especially in unsettled times, we love conspiracy theories. They are comforting and safe. You can go out with a conspiracy theory after dark and not worry about foul play. Before Oliver Stone there was Shakespeare, although he generally had the good grace to let a century or two go by before he contorted history.

What is new is our odd, bipolar approach to fact. We have a fresh taste for documentaries. Any novelist will tell you that readers hunger for nonfiction, which may explain the number of historical figures who have crowded into our novels. Facts seem important. Facts have gravitas. But the illusion of facts will suffice. One in three Americans still believes there were W.M.D.'s in Iraq.

And that's the way it is.

Maureen Dowd is on book leave.
Stacy Schiff, the author of "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America" and a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a guest columnist for two weeks.