December 23, 2007

The Stories That Can’t Be Told

(Author’s Note: This being Christmas week and all, I feel it my moral and cultural obligation to run a column that has absolutely nothing to do with the holidays.)


An old journalist’s dictum goes a little something like this: “There are some stories which, for whatever reason, simply cannot be told.”

            Okay, so that’s not exactly an old journalist’s dictum. It’s just something I made up a few years ago, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

            That’s why I have so many stories stashed away that will never see the light of print. I still write them, but I write them down for memory’s sake and nothing else. As my actual, physical memory grows increasingly scratchy and sputtery, all these little stories over all these years have become my primary means of recalling just what in the hell I was up to at a particular time. That’s also why a massive computer glitch in 1991 means that I have very little recollection of what exactly happened while I was living in Philadelphia and my early years in Brooklyn. Perhaps that’s for the best.

            But that’s just a parenthetical, really.

            Among those unpublished stories are tales of trauma and horror and psychological discomfort, of some things I’m not proud of—as well as things I’m very proud of. Of meetings with important people who’d rather not have it known I ever met with them, and of quiet things that took place within my apartment.

            In some cases the stories weren’t published because one wise editor or another said “You know, you really don’t want me to print this,” and in retrospect I realize they were right. In most cases, though, they weren’t published because at heart they involved other people, and running the story would constitute an unfair invasion of their privacy. I’ve been guilty of that in the past, and I’m still regretting it. To make my own failures public is one thing, but to do it to someone else (someone who isn’t a celebrity, politician, or CEO)—someone I consider a friend—is something else.

            Not that the stories aren’t worth something, though, which is why I still write them.

            It’s not that uncommon a practice. There was a long stretch after his novel Celebration came out when Harry Crews didn’t publish anything. I’d talked to him right around the time Celebration hit the bookstores in 1997, and he listed all the things he was working on—a collection of short stories, another memoir, another novel—so as the empty years rolled on after that, I became curious.

            Eventually I learned from someone close to Crews that he’d in fact written a number of books in that time, but was holding them back until after he died because the books involved people he knew, and he didn’t want to cause them any strife. Or at least cause himself any strife, given that he was the one who’d be dead.

            On the flipside, there’s the case of Henry Miller, who from Tropic of Cancer onward had claimed that his goal was to put absolutely everything down, record every event no matter how ugly or painful to himself or the people around him. It was that effort on his part that revolutionized what was possible with writing. He broke down all the barriers when it came to blunt literary honesty (even if he did change the names and call them “novels.”). And God bless him for that.

            Then, well, in the years since his death, a few nosy biographers and the people who knew Miller intimately have admitted that there was an awful lot of fiction in his novels, that he wasn’t exactly the character he’d created in his books. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m just sayin’.

            No matter how much of an in-your-face badass writer you think you are (and there are still a few of you out there), no matter how brutally honest you imagine yourself to be, there are some stories you aren’t going to tell. Not as they really happened, anyway. Maybe because they involve something about yourself you don’t care to admit publicly, maybe because you know it would hurt your mom’s feelings. For whatever reason, there are a few things you’ll hold back.

            Which is all a tedious and roundabout way of coming back around to modern journalism.

            It’s hardly a shocking surprise to hear that professional journalists bury stories all the time for one reason or another (especially these days, when most news outlets are owned by multinationals with agendas).

            It was something I was guilty of once or twice over the years in my own low-rent position, free of any multinational pressure.

            Here’s a dumb example. When I was at the New York Press, I wrote a little story once. Pointless thing, really, but funny, about an encounter Morgan and I had with a waitress in a diner who ranted to us for half an hour about the celebrity who’d just left, and what an asshole he was. She had no idea he was a celebrity until another customer told her. That only made things worse, especially since he left such a lousy tip. (“He should just play Frankenstein!” she said.)

            Anyway, this was about two weeks after the attacks, and we were about to go to press with the story when I learned that this celebrity was helping to dig out the ruins of the World Trade Center. Given that, it just didn’t really seem appropriate to tell a goofy story about a cranky old waitress who didn’t like him.

            In some cases, actual news stories I’d written were held by the editors. I was covering a murder case once (I did things like that on occasion) and, once again, was set to go to print. The killer hadn’t been caught yet and the police had no clues. It seemed clear to me, though, that a number of things about the murder scene and the victim herself should’ve pointed the cops in one direction. It was an interesting, complicated case—and best of all, it was an exclusive.

            Then the day before we went to press I was scooped by a reporter at another paper (someone who had learned about the case from me). The story got all the facts wrong and pointed in the wrong direction—miserable piece of journalism it was—but that didn’t matter. I’d been scooped and so my story was yanked. The editors didn’t want to take a chance that I might be wrong. That would hurt their “credibility.”

            (It was a little late for that, but whatever.)

            It may be hard to believe, but I was at a party once. Even harder to believe, one of the other guests was a bigwig producer at CNN. He was a nice fellow full of tales about things that could have been major stories, but never got on the air. Sometimes on account of legal or political pressure, sometimes because of a personal request, sometimes because he felt it was a moral issue not to tell a story which could have destroyed someone’s career. I was at once shocked to hear this—but at the same time I wasn’t surprised in the least. What surprised me most wasn’t just the number of stories he told, but the willingness he had to relate them all so freely (if drunkenly). I’m not exactly sure where “journalistic integrity” figures into all that.

            History’s full of cases like that, of course—the common secrets journalists share that the public never hears about, from FDR’s wheelchair to Cleveland’s cancer surgery, to back room political arrangements to . . . well, a few other things I dare not mention.

            It’s great fodder for the conspiracy-minded.

            Take, for instance, the discovery a few weeks ago of the fossilized claw of an eight foot long sea scorpion. I didn’t see a single report that made the connection between that giant sea scorpion and the giant, alien-bred scorpions which were used to guard one of Saddam Hussein’s more remote palaces.

            And what about the giant radioactive space spiders which landed in east Texas when the shuttle came down? You sure haven’t heard anything about them, have you?

            Then of course there’s the Godzilla story. But that’ll have to wait.


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