Middle America is tired of those latte-sipping liberals and their “elite media” hanging out in New York City, but author and New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy makes the case that Americans aren’t as different from one another as they’d like to think—and in fact they are all bound by one thing: truth. “No little falsehood is okay, ever, and we take that very seriously,” says Levy, speaking of the allegiance to truth and extreme fact-checking that happens at The New Yorker. Journalists are human, and therein lies inevitable errors, but to claim that fake news is coming from the liberal media or that climate science is liberal propaganda is very much off base, she says. Here she delves into what the journalist’s mandate is, and why there’s no point making up facts: reality gets you in the end. Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply, is out now.
Ariel Levy: There are lattes in the middle of Ohio now. When Seinfeld was on and everybody loved it, guess what? It was Jews from New York. This idea that we're so out of touch and that this culture we've come up with here is anathema to the rest of the country—guess what: we're as real American as everybody else, and sure there are more liberals here. Sure, we're used to a more heterogeneous population in New York City than what I just saw when I was reporting in Maine last week, but there was plenty of “latte,” and we're not that different, and we're not any less American.
It's also a matter of like: "Sorry about the facts." Sorry that “Big Science”, which is to say scientists, have realized that if we keep doing things the way we're doing them we are going to end the world. "Sorry!" I mean, I wish it weren't so, but it doesn't make [climate change] a liberal phenomenon. It's just beyond my comprehension.
The thing I was going to say about The New York Times is you notice that as much as the president likes to say it's fake news, the minute he goes and meets with their editors he says it's a “great American treasure”.
I mean, it is the paper of record. Now in fairness they did make some mistakes. They're humans. All that stuff around the WMDs and right after the Iraq war—that is serious stuff that happened that The Times got wrong that eroded public trust. But I don't actually think that's what's going on—I don't think that's what this election was about. I mean, we know for a fact that it wasn't. We know for a fact that there was a very targeted system for disseminating the fake news.
Long-form journalism is the only thing I've ever done—that and writing books. I don't know how to be a newspaper journalist. I think what they do is incredibly impressive, but I'm not trained to do it; I don't know how to do it. And they have a different mandate than we do. Their mandate is to attempt objectivity, and ours isn't. I mean, we are meant to tell the truth, and everything you read in The New Yorker has been fact checked more than you can believe, but the overall story I'm telling in any given—no matter what it is—it's always my version. And it's not my mandate to be without a perspective, it's not my mandate to remove myself, to have the least present authorial voice I can. That's not my mandate.
My mandate is to try to make it interesting for the reader while informing the reader, with a complete allegiance to accuracy, but I'm allowed to tell the story however I want to, and that's the luxury. That's being a magazine journalist, and that's what I love about it.
I'm never endeavoring to make myself or my point of view invisible. That's not my mandate. I'm trying to be subtle about it, because the quieter and sort of, you know—if I'm sly about it then it's more persuasive because you don't want to feel that someone has directed you to think this, that, and the other; you want to feel that you think that. But it's my job to lead you to think whatever it is I want you to.
I mean, it depends how honest the individual journalist is, and how much allegiance he or she has to the truth, to accuracy. I am not wed to making every person feel that their perspective has been represented, I'm representing my perspective when I tell a story, but every single detail in that story will be the truth. And no little falsehood is okay, ever, and we take that very seriously.