*No. 1: Jose Antonio Vargas’s much-talked-about confessional on living in the United States as an undocumented immigrant was a fun read. It was originally edited by The Washington Post but appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Not since the dissolution of the International Herald Tribune deal have these two organizations worked so well together.
*No. 2: Much as I adore web-first publishing models, I cannot get my head around reading a New York Times Magazine feature four or five days before it comes out.
*No. 3: The Post’s Paul Farhi reported last week that the Vargas story ran into trouble with Post editors in part because he “hadn’t disclosed that he had replaced his expired Oregon driver’s license with a new one issued by Washington state.”
Whether or not that weighed heavily in The Post’s decision to pass on the piece, I’d say it would have been ample grounds to kill it. Decades of experience with mendacious essayists yield a simple rule for editors: The moment your narrator shows the smallest sign of shiftiness, spike the piece. Tell the writer you’ve lost confidence in the story and move on. The hair-trigger standard for first-person stories rests on a few principles:1) In a first-person story, you can’t signal to the reader that the author is a flake. You have to insist that the author write something that’s true and comprehensive. If, on the other hand, you assign a reporter to profile someone, you can use the conventions of the craft to convey inconsistencies in the subject’s story. 2) An essayist has strong financial motives to stretch the truth, in the form of freelance payments and a book contract. The subject of a profile in most cases has no such incentives. 3) Good luck fact-checking a first-person piece. Indeed, you can generally establish the reliability of statements made within the story’s four corners. What you cannot ascertain is what the essayist left out-- the omissions. Like the driver’s license thing.
Well-intentioned memoirists can misremember things, too. In 2008, New York Times columnist David Carr (a close friend) wrote The Night of the Gun, a look back at a colorful set of decades. He ventured out to fact-check his own recollections and found several to have been faulty. Granted, the author’s lifestyle didn’t facilitate pinpoint memory, but the point remains: There’s a reason we have reporters.
*No. 4: In his piece, Vargas writes of fears that “I was annoying some colleagues and editors.”
Add me to that list.
In a chat with NPR’s Michele Norris, Vargas was asked about a comment from an undocumented woman who suspected that this whole thing was going to be about Vargas, and not the issue that he purports to champion. Vargas responded:
“She totally has a point, and this is totally about her. This much I promise you: As I move forward with this, I will certainly make sure that this does not just become the Jose Antonio Vargas show. The media’s going to try to do that, for the next few days and weeks. But as long as I’m doing this, I’m going to make sure this is not just about me.” (Emphasis courtesy Erik Wemple blog.)
This is coming from a guy who calls himself a journalist even though he’s launching a nonprofit advocacy group. From a guy who went through a full laundry cycle of fact-checking and rewriting to get his piece in a prominent publication. From a guy who claims that journalism is his “church.”
Jose, you are the media.