15 October, 2012

Letter to the Editor


The Walrus,
19 Duncan Street, Suite 101,
Toronto, Ontario, M5H 3H1.

17 August 2012

RE: John MacFarlane’s Editor’s Note, September 2012 Issue.

Dear Editors,

Buried deep in the back of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, endnote 269, is a character sketch of pro football punter Orin Incandenza by his former roommate, the reclusive hypochondriac Marlon Bain. Bain describes Orin as a near-pathological liar, a serial seducer of mothers with young children that he (=O.) contrives to fall madly in love with him, to the point where they (=the mothers w/ children) forget all about their brood; much the same way that O. feels his own mother serially philanders and apportions her attention. Orin goes so far as to deploy a series of numbered seduction strategies, selling each married woman a different version of himself, which Bain says demonstrates how “there can be such a thing as sincerity with a motive.” Then there’s a long and kind of funny anecdote before Bain recapitulates as follows: “It is not that Orin Incandenza is a liar, but that I think he has come to regard the truth as constructed instead of reported.”

This same distinction underwrites John MacFarlane’s Editor’s Note in the September issue of The Walrus magazine. Mr MacFarlane writes about the difference between advertisers and journalists, which cohabit a magazine’s pages but for very different reasons: advertisers have something to sell, while journalists have something to say. Mr MacFarlane puts it thusly:

“Journalists, including me, often feel conflicted about advertising: grateful because it helps pay the bills (including salaries), and because financial sustainability is an editor’s best friend; when a magazine is solvent, its owners tend to leave its editors alone. Grateful, then, but wary, because advertising is always self-interested, which is what distinguishes it from journalism. [Emphasis added.] This is also why journalists sometimes dismiss it as irrelevant or, worse, dishonest. Yet what could be more honest than the shoemaker’s desire to have people buy his or her shoes? Seen in this way, the marketing of products is a natural consequence of the making of them, and in a consumer society it’s hardly irrelevant, and only dishonest when it’s, well, dishonest — that is, when it makes false claims.”

I submit to you that the prenominate gloss is not only wrong but insidious and bad, and just plain hard to believe given Mr MacFarlane’s editorial mantle. The fact is that journalists sell stories: writers ‘pitch’ stories to editors, editors pick the most interesting of these, and then work with the writer to get the story into print. Along the way there are hundreds of ‘editorial decisions’, arguments over usage and pitch and tone and angle and what to quote and what to cut. The overriding aim is to tell the story in a way that interests readers. To get more readers to turn more pages, some of which pages, of course, carry advertising.

For Mr MacFarlane to suggest that journalists are not self-interested, and that this is what distinguishes them from advertisers - people who sell things - is literally ridiculous: silly to the point of being surreal, reckless, cavalier, wilfully blind, and then almost unbelievable when he ends his Editor’s Note with The Walrus’s own sales pitch:

“Like the shoemaker, we at The Walrus want to sell what we make to as many people as possible, and so we advertise the magazine’s virtues wherever and whenever we can. Is this self-interested? Yes. Irrelevant? Not if it puts the magazine into the hands of more readers. Dishonest? Our ads claim The Walrus is fearless, witty, thoughtful, and Canadian. You tell me.”

Mr MacFarlane’s argument is the same as Marlon Bain’s: that some people regard the truth as something to construct, while others regard the truth as something to report. Mr MacFarlane puts advertisers in the constructed camp and journalists - at least journalists at The Walrus - in the reported camp. (This is what makes advertisements for The Walrus different from advertisements in The Walrus.) The problem is that the distinction is completely false; it’s a non-distinction, mistaking a difference in degree for a difference in kind. So-called ‘reported’ truth is every bit as constructed as plain old advertising: a journalist can only talk to so many people, put the camera in so many places, run down so many leads, ask so many questions. The process is even more constrained by word counts and page limits: subtle distinctions that require lots of space to develop and explain rarely win out over points that are more straightforward, pithy, exciting, salacious, surprising.  

A more intuitive way to make the foregoing points is maybe this: the reason there are many different magazines and newspapers is that there are many, many different ways to tell the same story. In fact, there are as many ways as there are storytellers, and each journalist can be only one of these. To suggest that even some journalists tell better stories than others - do more reporting than constructing - is to mistake journalists for prophets.

There will always be more to say than pages on which to print; the map is not the territory, and my world, at least, does not unfold in neat, clear, narrative arcs. The most obvious things are often the easiest to overlook but also, in many cases, the most important: in this case, that without readers there would be no writers, even at The Walrus. For Mr MacFarlane to suggest otherwise is, with great respect, simply false advertising.


As ever,