Thirty years ago I got a letter from Walter Cronkite. I can recite it from memory. “Dear Jeremy,” it ran, on CBS corporate letterhead, “I don’t usually write about pieces about me. I figure it is a newspaperman’s function to do a good, straightforward, honest report. But I think your interview was exceptional. You got the nuances right as well as the words. I deeply appreciate that. Furthermore, I enjoyed our chat. I hope we can have another over a beer on a less professional basis, Sincerely, Walter Cronkite”
Here’s a secret of the trade: We don’t like to admit it, but nothing makes a journalist’s heart beat faster or leap higher than confirmation that we got a story right, especially when it comes from another journalist. We’re so used to sticking our necks out, byline by byline, day after day dodging brickbats and imprecations, that any affirmation makes us swoon. Makes us commit every word to memory. Old Iron Pants, the Most Trusted Man in America, gave me the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
There is, however, a danger in such encomia, as I realized after seeing The Lifespan of a Fact, a new Broadway play based on the true story of an encounter between a celebrated magazine writer (played by Bobby Cannavale), the editor (Cherry Jones) who desperately wants to publish his heartbreaker of a story (“Essay!” he insists) about a young man’s suicide in Las Vegas, and the tyro fact checker (Daniel Radcliffe) who finds half a dozen or more errors in the first sentence alone.
What happened in real life was that Harper’s magazine rejected the story. Then a seven-year back-and-forth ensued between the famous writer and the persistent fact checker at a different publication. Eventually the “essay,” complete with the author-versus-fact-checker tick-tock, was published in The Believer, a well-regarded literary magazine. At its heart, the story of the story is about where facts matter in the search for truth.
The play compresses that seven-year dialogue into a five-day, up-against-deadline demolition derby as the three players hash it all out in the writer’s Las Vegas home. The result, in my opinion, is less a Shavian exploration of competing ethical goals than a breezily entertaining gloss on the subject delivered by a terrific cast gifted in spitting out pithy epigrams in rapid fire fusillades. It’s so reductive, you’d think the play was written in code.
Which is a pity. To the Celebrated Writer, seeking truth supersedes slavish adherence to verifiable facts. Especially inconvenient ones. He writes, for example, that there were 34 suicides on the night of his subject’s death, because 34 fits the rhythm of his sentence better than the actual number, which was 31. That’s the kind of thing that drives a fact checker to, well, if not suicide then to the nearest soapbox to expound on the inviolability of facts.
And here’s where my 30-year-old letter comes in. All that expounding falls on deaf ears because the C.W. has a trump card (loathe as I am to use that expression in this context) up his sleeve. He has his version of the Walter Cronkite letter. He’s shown the story to the dead boy’s parents, he says, and the boy’s mother told him, “This is my son.”
Point, set, match. As soon as I heard that line, I knew no force on earth – neither corner office editor nor shaggy, backpacking fact checker – was going to convince the writer otherwise. He’s stumbled into the oldest journalistic trap in the book: a subject’s flattery. That mother’s words may have left him feeling cocky and accomplished – Walter Cronkite’s letter certainly had that impact on me. But it suggested something a bit less noble than a search for “truth.” “This is my son,” a grieving mother had told him. “This is me,” a writer had written.
I never did get that beer, by the way. Which just may, in the end, be the real moral of the story.