Barney Collier to Mark Bowden: “At the Herald Tribune, the Facts Were Exceedingly Straight”

By Barnard Law Collier

In response to yesterday’s Mark Bowden post about fact, fiction, and the New Journalism:

Around me in a far corner of the New York Herald Tribune’s cluttered, nicotine-stained newsroom in Manhattan sat the cream of the best practitioners of the so-called “New Journalism” which, as best defined, was old journalism plus novelistic points of view and cinematic gizmos.

Tom Wolfe was assigned to one neat desk. Jimmy Breslin sat at a brutally beat up and overstuffed wooden hulk. Gail Greene’s desk was Manhattan’s food central. Hunter Thompson’s desk drawers were rich and abundant with pharmaceutical treasures.

When all hands were occasionally on deck in the corner at the same time, discussions of technical style and fabrication were brought up, and I don’t believe I ever heard a word about “embellishment” or “composite characters” (unannounced beforehand to the reader) or intentional distortion of chronology. Nobody in that corner looked at their stories that way.

The motto on the banner of this young and privileged cohort was Mark Twain’s advice: “First get your facts straight, then you can distort them as you please.”

I’d bet that in almost everything any of the aforementioned crew published the facts were exceedingly straight. What they wrote was made memorable not by imaginative embellishment but by the extraordinary accuracy and deft handling of many facets of storytelling, including tone, implication, perspicacity, inflection, and sincerity, all of which were of much more importance than “embellishment”.

In straight fact, the “New Journalists” actually never existed, except perhaps as totems among gossips and in critical literary circles. The folk I was familiar with didn’t feel “new” to themselves. They all felt, to me, like reincarnations out of the 19th century Russian mode of seeing into and poetically piercing to the heart of a story.

So they did not think they were breaking new ground by striving for full-blush, multi-dimensional accuracy that, clearly and openly, paints a fuller and truer picture of reality than any mythical “undistorted” fact.

Did the unreal New Journalists un-objectively “distort” their facts so much as to turn them into lies?

Not in my opinion. What seemed “distorted” to others was actually the combination of closer, more intense, more multi-perspective reporting that rang true to a lot of readers, and still does. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was distorted, as is Las Vegas, to call attention to the distortion.

Left out of the story in many cases is the straight fact that the best “New Journalists” were edited by some of the most talented and classically inclined editors who believed, as I do, that to ring true is as important to a good story as to a good bell.

The guys I sat with were most concerned not to ring false notes, a vogue that might be fun if it makes a comeback.
Jack to Barney: That’s good that the Herald Tribune had editors that made the new journalists stick to the facts but what about when Wolfe and the rest of them got to New York magazine and Rolling Stone? Were Clay Felker and Jan Wenner as good as the editors as the Herald Trib at making writers stick to the facts?
Barney to Jack: Clay Felker was good at promoting entertaining ideas and not quite so strict about non-embellishment, although some of his writers, including me, were very scrupulous about it. I don’t know about the workings of Rolling Stone but I do know Jan Wenner.  He didn’t have much to worry about during the early Rolling Stone years because music is not all about “truth” because musicians know there ain’t no such animal. When RS started dealing with “investigative journalism,” somebody there hired some wrong editors.
Barney Collier was a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. He says, “It was my first New York newspaper job, hired by Jim Bellows, who edited the Trib into the best newspaper in the city and Europe, until the bean-counters closed it.”

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