Pulp Fictions

Friday, May 01, 2009


Throughout journalism there have been the inevitable errors of omission, errant mistakes and occasional misstatements of fact. And then there have been the flat-out, large-scale flagrant lies. Eric Burns, author of All The News Unfit to Print, reintroduces us to a number of prominent journalists who, finding the news lacking, simply made it up.

Comments [15]

lenny ruderman from yonkers,ny

I just watched "meet the press". if Dick Cheney is right about the democrats being soft on terrorism, why hasn't one reporter brought up the fact that 9/11 occurred on his watch?(and to make matters worse, he & Bush & others were warned that an attack was being prepared). and how about our home-grown terrorists (like the militias). remember anthrax & Oklahoma City? why are these facts never brought up by reporters & jounalists?...what's your opinion about this? thank you!

Jan. 03 2010 12:29 PM
Rosalie Brown from cleveland

(cont. to Mr. Burns) I never said that the majority of people had pockmarks. Please read carefully. Pockmarks are not the only disfigurements people had then. Think about cleft palates, severe orthodontic problems, acne scaring, burns and everything else that can now be cured by plastic surgery. It wasn't as big a deal then. I’m just saying that if Johnson was ashamed of his appearance it did not stop him from surrounding himself with people. He went out in society, and would not have stayed away from parliament if he'd had a mind to go.
Your suggestion that mostly others wrote his dictionary is amazing! It was an uber production, of course he hired others to help him. I can't even fathom how he did it with as little help as he had (and without his wordprocessor). We sure disagree on that.
I bare you no ill will, I just think in Samuel Johnson you have misrepresented things to fit neatly in with your book. So, we’ll agree to disagree.

May. 08 2009 02:28 PM
Rosalie Brown from cleveland

Dear Mr. Burns,
I found your response unexpectedly polite, although I still disagree with you. I am not a scholar. I had just finished a book on Samuel Johnson, because I wanted to find out about him. You are right he did often refer to himself as lazy. But he also referred to his dark and debilitating “melancholia”. Not understanding depression, I’m sure he felt he was lazy, but we would not call it that today. Also, I never said I had read his “definitive” biography, but I stand by the information in Martin’s biography as it is well footnoted.
I did get one date wrong. Mr. Guthrie was hired to attend parliament in 1732, but it wasn’t until 1738 that Johnson took over editing his pieces. [The footnote for this information is: Kaminski, Early Career, pp42-43] But, this is interesting... In 1738 Parliament had placed restrictions on the reporting of the debates. The house of “Commons at that time did not want any reporting published in the papers even during the recess; nor did it want speakers identified by name.” So Johnson and the owner, Cave, decided if Johnson made up barely-disguised names and places for the subjects being debated they couldn’t be prosecuted. What a hoot! Anyway, yes, he did make up some of their speeches, but no one complained, because, as you said, he was much more eloquent than they had been. You said that because of his “laziness” we don’t know what went on in parliament during the time he was writing. But, maybe, it is because of his writing we know anything at all. (Sometimes things are more complicated than they seem at first glance.)

May. 08 2009 02:27 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Did I say I wrote fiction?

May. 08 2009 05:37 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Oh, and how could I neglect my beloved Twain?

Burns is entirely correct in that Clemens was just practicing his writing for the fiction he later excelled in. Remember, that he, like Blair had Orwell, had Twain. The duality allowed his...lies and led to the later ability to vascillate without compunction. (Not a word much used in an era leading to mortgage defaults.) Still, his fiction was reaching for a deeper truth that mine is often criticized for lacking.

Wasn't it the Atlantic that published a story a while back where a body is found in the snow with no tracks to or from and it turns out the guy fell from a hot air balloon; 19th century i-phone humor, if I ever read it.

May. 08 2009 05:36 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Do that misspeaking and other types of mistake (pn intended) all the time but I do like to think it reflects a good grasp of history though Boswell and Johnson are not strong points with me. By bizarre, I suppose I meant I expected stuff on the Adams/Jefferson campaign. Now, there was some down and dirty business there that kept them from communicating for decades. Wasn't it Adams whose dying words were, "Jefferson lives!" but was wrong by hours?

I don't think even Poppy Bush - oh, why haven't I remembered that nickname, before! - was paying anyone to say Obama was a Muslim (not that there's anything wrong with that). Well, actually, maybe him I could believe it of, but he didn't have to considering the make-up of the electorate.

May. 08 2009 05:07 AM
Eric Burns

continued from above:

As far as his epic dictionary is concerned, most of the work, the choosing and cataloguing of the words, for instance, was done by others. And, I repeat, he himself admitted to a certain laziness. He does not seem to have been lazy about writing, just about its accoutrements.

Ms. Brown's citation of Peter Martin's biography of Johnson is strange, because by acclimation the best biography written of Johnson (Boswell's aside) was the work of W. Jackson Bate, who was my primary source for the chapter.

Her point about William Guthrie is flat-out wrong. As Bate makes clear (note the citation for Guthrie's name in the index), he was involved in editing something altogether different from the Parliamentary Debates during Johnson's period of employment with Gentleman's Magazine.

If Johnson was merely editing the actual reporting of others, which he unqualifiedly was not, why did he express regret for fooling the public? A couple of quotes to that effect, and citations, are given in my book.

And, finally, most people did NOT have pock-marked faces at the time, not to the extent that Johnson did, and Johnson was specifically and particularly sensitive about them.

May. 06 2009 05:38 PM
Eric Burns

Ms. Brown makes two good points. I misspoke twice about Samuel Johnson, saying Gentleman's Quarterly when I meant Gentleman's Magazine (an easy mistake to make, and one that is not made in the book), and referring to Johnson's tenure with the publication as being in the 1720s, when it was in fact in the 1740s. Meaning Ms. Brown was wrong, too; she said it was in the 1730s. So let's say she made one and a half good points.

I regret misspeaking in both cases, but it happens on occasion to everyone. And, although I misspoke, I did not mis write; neither error appears in my book.

As far as Johnson's laziness is concerned, he admitted it himself. He might well have been depressed, but we can't be sure at this stage and, even if he was, it did not stop him from socializing, as Ms. Brown points out. Johnson's minimal literary output is evidence of a certain laziness, whatever the cause of the laziness.

May. 06 2009 05:37 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Burns really was bizarre but even weirder is Virginia Gentleman's proposition that the interview was allowed to run after OTM read Ms. Brown's critique when the critique could not have existed before the broadcast. Not exactly chicken and egg, here.

May. 05 2009 04:07 PM

Additional commentary on the Samuel Johnson discussion here: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/hydeblog/2009/05/04/fiction-is-easier-than-discernment/

May. 04 2009 04:51 PM
Patricia A. McKnight from United States

Oh, and on Clemens/Twain. He was a humorist and his "Petrified Man" and similar tales were HUMOROUS. Perhaps it requires a reader to have a sense of humor to understand this?

May. 03 2009 10:22 PM
Patricia A. McKnight from United States

I am with Lichanos. I was a Troskyist (i.e., radical and ANTI Stalinist) during the '50s McCarthy witchhunt, which was manufactured almost entirely by the drunken, mendacious sociopathic Senator from Wisconsin. He wanted to further his own career. There were VERY few persons in the U.S. who supported Communism/Stalinism. The Communist Party in the U.S., never very large, had fallen apart at the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact and never really recovered, not even with the positive portrayal of Stalin during WW II.
I watched the Army-McCarthy hearings with another Troskyist, Michael Harrington, author of "The Other America." McCarthy was savage and brutal and his campaign created a reign of terror, to which even Harry S. Truman succumbed. McCarthy was a liar -- and Mr. Burns either is a liar himself or grossly ignorant about McCarthy (and Nixon, who played much the same role in the House. He was on HUAC).

May. 03 2009 10:17 PM
Lichanos from Teaneck, NJ

Your guest offered one of the strangest rationalizations for the McCarthy Red Scare that I have ever heard. It was because of bad journalists who fooled people into looking favorably on Stalin.

What about the USA that lionized him for years while he was our ally, and busy pulverizing the Nazi army? Of course there was lots of awful propaganda, and the USSR was looked on with some favor by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. Chief among them, we were in a depression and they claimed to be a state formed for the sake of the workers. I imagine African-Americans had reasons too...

None of this is an excuse or really even an explanation for the popularity of McCarthy and his awful tactics. If there had never been a Communist spy uncovered, or a sympathiser found anywhere in the USA, I've my doubts whether that would have hindered them much.

Good heavens, there was a Polish politician a few years ago using Jew baiting as a campaign strategy against his opponent, who was not Jewish, and in a country that has no Jews. One can always invent a demon to oppose.

May. 03 2009 08:28 PM
Virginia Gentleman from Richmond, Virginia

Memo to Ms. Brown - Thanks for giving us a perfect example of the media going ahead with a story after an "astute reader" points out the factual errors. I suspect Ms. Gladstone will enter this thread soon to castigate you.

May. 03 2009 05:04 PM
Rosalie Brown from cleveland

I just finished listening to Mr Burns' interview. I assume he was referring to material in his book, as he mangled the facts about Samual Johnson. First: Johnson never worked for GQ magazine, since it wasn't in founded until more than 200 years after Johnson's death. He worked for Gentleman's Magazine. Second: If Burns had read Johnson's biography (Peter Martin wrote a very good one) he would know that he suffered from severe depression, not laziness. For goodness sake he wrote a dictionary faster than the 40 Frenchmen who had the same task. Third: One William Guthrie was hired to attend the parlimentary sessions and submit reports to the editor...for editing. Mr. Guthrie wrote "merely competently" so in June of 1732 the editor, Cave, handed his work over to Johnson to rewrite and spruce up. Fourth: This did not happen in 1720 - 23, when Johnson was 11 and still in gradeschool, but in June of 1732 as mentioned above. Fifth: Most people had "pock" marks and other disfigurements, because diseases, congenital and acquired, were ubiquitous. He was very social, often hanging out with his lifelong friend David Garrick, the MOST famous actor of his time, the Blue Stockings, the MOST elite literary and arts circle of his time, and he LOVED to attend social gatherings where his wit and mind were appreciated. Sixth: I think it is appropriate that Mr Burns should write a book about misrepresentation, he sure knows what he's talking about.

May. 02 2009 08:11 PM

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