Never trust a writer?

In her acclaimed book examining journalistic ethics, The Journalist and the Murderer Janet Malcolm coined the notorious phrase “confidence man” for a journalist. It wasn’t meant as flattery, of course; it was an indictment.

A journalist “is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse,” Malcolm wrote.

While it isn’t always fit to generalize, it is true that all journalists are in the business of trust. They must earn the trust of their subjects and their audience in order to do their job. But the quest for “truth” can be a subjective matter, especially since a writer decides the story they want to tell and how to tell it. In this they often contour the boundaries of their morality to accommodate their goal. 

But the real trouble with a writer is that everything is fodder. Just ask Aaron Sorkin.

After introducing a new character in the form of gossip columnist Nina Howard (played by Hope Davis) on episode four of his HBO show “Newsroom,” Sorkin tells HBO’s behind-the-scenes cameras that the character was inspired by a woman he knew. Never naming her, he reveals only that she worked as a gossip columnist for The New York Post. One night she educated him about something called a “takedown piece”—apparently industry lingo for a humiliating tell-all profile. Rather amused, Sorkin then appropriated the conversation—and the character—for “Newsroom.” It was not a flattering portrait of gossip columnists; it was an indictment.

Next, the NYPost reporter Sorkin never named published a tell-all takedown piece on the Website (which, I’m not kidding, touts itself as a place “where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded”). The reporter, Mandy Stadtmiller, writes that she and Sorkin dated, and on one of these dates they had a conversation that became a “Newsroom” scene. 

In the telling of her story, Stadtmiller includes a photograph of herself, photographs of her iphone displaying messages from “Aaron Sorkin”, and a picture of a bouquet Sorkin sent her on her 36th birthday along with the accompanying (and quite charming) note.

After exposing all these details, she muses, “if someone uses me in his writing, doesn’t it seem fair that I use him in my own?”

Good question. Stadtmiller reported a lived experience and backed it up with documentation. Sorkin also wrote a lived experience, not so much fictionalizing the situation as disguising it. The actual writing is not so different, but the moral impulses guiding the writing are poles apart. Sorkin told Stadtmiller he was modeling a character on her and protected her privacy; Stadtmiller watched the Hollywood version of herself and out of anger or offense retaliated by disregarding his. What she did wasn’t very nice (I doubt he’ll ask her on another date) but was it immoral? And wasn’t he foolish for trusting her?

A few years ago I did something similar to Sorkin. When I had trouble getting an interview with him, I turned my failed pursuit of him into a story for our Oscar issue. That was the year “The Social Network” was up for almost every major award and Sorkin was the story of the year. If I couldn’t get to him, I still had copy to file, so instead of an actual interview I turned my lived experience into a report. I used emails I had exchanged with Sorkin to support the story and couched it all in the flattering light of courtship: “Desperately Seeking Sorkin” was one headline; “My Fantasy Interview” was another. I had nothing personal to reveal about Sorkin because there was nothing personal about our exchange. I had never even met him.

But what if I had?

As someone who feels they have to write in order to stay sane, and has never written a work of fiction in her life, I know there are life experiences I will one day put to words that people who shared in them might prefer never to be published. Is that immoral? I’m not sure. But it’s life.

After Nora Ephron’s second husband cheated on her while she was pregnant, she wrote the novel “Heartburn.” “Proof that writing well is the best revenge,” reads the book’s cover quote, attributed to the Chicago Tribune. Though Ephron penned it in the first person, she changed her name to Rachel and her husband’s to Mark, but the real-life characters were both too famous to disguise. Carl Bernstein was disgraced; Ephron got a movie starring Meryl Streep.

So let me refer back to the opening Malcolm quote, which warns of the dangers of reporters, and end with the following quote by A.S. Byatt, a Booker Prize-winning writer of fiction:

“I know at least one suicide and one attempted suicide caused by people having been put into novels. I know writers to whom I don’t tell personal things – which is hard, as these writers are always the most interested in what one has to tell. All writing is an exercise of power and special pleading – telling something your own way, in a version that satisfies you. Others must see it differently. As I get older I increasingly understand that the liveliest characters – made up with the most freedom – are combinations of many, many people, real and fictive, alive and dead, known and unknown. I really don’t like the idea of ‘basing’ a character on someone, and these days I don’t like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead. I am also afraid of the increasing appearance of ‘faction’ — mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention. It feels like the appropriation of others’ lives and privacy.”

Of course, it’s worth noting that Byatt wrote a novel called “The Game” about the dynamics between two sisters. Byatt and her sister, Dame Margaret Drabble, also a writer, do not speak. After Drabble read “The Game,” she told The Telegraph that their feud was “beyond repair.” Of Byatt, she said, “She may not have known what she had done until she had written it. Writers are like that. But it’s a mean-spirited book about sibling rivalry and she sent it to me with a note signed ‘With love,’ saying ‘I think I owe you an apology’.”