On Saturday night, while Ron Chernow was addressing the White House correspondents and their esteemed guests, I was in Brooklyn speaking to and with an inspiring group of conceptual artists on the final day of “Dirt & Debt,” sponsored by ResidencyUnlimited. Though I was there, foremost, as someone who has tried to narrate the cultural history of American finance, the co-curator who introduced me wanted to also acknowledge my connection the Center for Mark Twain Studies and so had created a slide which featured the epigram from Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Michael Lewis’s bestselling postmortem of the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short:
Somewhat sheeepishly, I had to inform my gracious host that, in fact, Mark Twain never said such a thing. As I traced in 2016, the false attribution was popularized by Al Gore. In these moments, which are not entirely uncommon, I cannot help but ask myself, “Why do I care?” There is absolutely no reason why a viewer of McKay’s provocative film should suspect they are being misled. Is divesting them of this misconception anything more than a narcissistic display of my own idiosyncratic expertise? There are far more urgent falsehoods to be reckoned with. I could tell that the curator was a little disappointed. She liked the quote, and liked even more the symbolic way in reconciled the seemingly disparate strains of my scholarship. I saw it. I was flattered that she had engaged enough with my work to see it to. Believe me, it would be preferable for me if it were so. It just isn’t.
Back in my hotel room later that night, I logged into the backend of MarkTwainStudies.org, as I often do at the end of the day, just to see what our traffic looked like. It was surprisingly robust for the weekend, much of it directed to another “Apocryphal Twain” post I wrote on the occasion of the 2018 midterm elections. This one traced the origins of a scatatological assessment of what politicians are typically full of.
It took very little searching to surmise that the traffic was driven by the invocation of this aphorism by Ron Chernow at the conclusion of his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner earlier in the evening, a speech which was already being widely praised. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain,” Chernow said, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons.”
I was exhausted, but I lay there watching and rewatching the last several minutes of Chernow’s speech. Much of what he said I could sympathize with, but knowing that he had ended on a false note (in fact, a couple of them), the overarching message rang hollow. If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the “relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media” which he rightly describes.
Just a few moments earlier in the speech, Chernow had brought the room to its feet by calling them “heirs to a grand crusading tradition that dates back to Ida B. Wells…this is a glorious tradition, you folks are part of it, and we can’t have politicians trampling on it with impunity, both here and by autocratic regimes abroad.” A little pandering, sure, but I can get on board with this type of panegyric to the press, in part because it doesn’t rely, as Chernow elsewhere does, upon reductive characterizations of journalists as high-minded arbiters of truth and faultless guardians of facts. The tradition of U.S. journalism that includes Ida Wells, Ida Tarbell, and others who Chernow names, is propelled by a “crusading” impulse.
This tradition is not above using polemic, parody, poetry, and many other genres and rhetorical devices which depend upon journalists’ creative and critical acumen, not just their ability to navigate documents and report what’s happening “on the ground.” The mythic figures of American journalism – Joseph Pulitzer, for instance – habitually eluded details which were inconvenient to the case they were making, published insufficiently substantiated claims, and engaged in heated debates with other public figures that were rooted at least as much in their personal beliefs as the public’s interests. For those of us who spend ample time in the archives of U.S. newpapers, this observation is banal, and not at all bothersome. It is not tantamount to shouting #FakeNews or underestimating how integral the fourth estate is to civil society. Good journalists are not always “fair-minded” and “accurate.” Nor are the politicians and other powerful individuals and institutions who they cover and occasionally crusade against. Via these crusades power is forced to account for itself before the vigilance of a democratic citizenry. That’s the real credibility of the news media and the service they perform in civil society.
Chernow builds his panegyric to the press around facts: “Facts are the foot-soldiers of our respective professions. They do the hard marching and should wear no ideological coloring.” By reifying the myths of journalistic rigor and objectivity, Chernow and the reporters who applaud him are setting for themselves a standard which is both unachievable (because truth is hard) and unprecedented. They are complicit in creating an environment in which every mistake, every retraction, and every misattribution, no matter how trivial, gives that campaign being waged against their credibility more fuel. They can be foisted on their own petard. You don’t get to claim entry in a “glorious tradition” of fact-worshipping and then abdicate the basic fact-checking of statements that happen to be flattering to you, resonate with your worldview, or allow you to appropriate the high-approval ratings of a mythic figure like Mark Twain. Stop fetishizing facts. Perhaps the more potent position, certainly the one more reconcilable with Twain’s legacy, is to resuscitate and revere the historical overlap between muckraking journalists and persuasive realist fiction-writers.
Twain offered his own panegyric to the press in response to Matthew Arnold’s attacks on American journalism in 1888:
“Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.“Mark Twain Accepts” Hartford Courant June 29, 1888
I remain steadfastly convinced that if you’re willing to go digging for it, the stuff he actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth.