“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.” – Mark Twain
I’m not sure how closely Mark Twain followed his own advice, but that quote can apply just as well to news writing as it does to fiction in this age of distorted truth. It’s getting to the point where you can’t tell the real news from the stuff people seem to make up based on things they overheard while waiting in line at Starbucks. The new mantra has become “I can neither confirm nor deny that I had any knowledge of this event which may or may not have happened.” Huh? When I watch a press briefing, I can tell they’re lying because their lips are moving, and it’s likely I don’t believe most of what they say anyway.
The problem isn’t the reliability of the mainstream news media. There are so many social media outlets that anyone can record something on their cell phone, post it online and call it “breaking news.” They’re not required to do basic fact checking, and people are so enthralled by made-up stories that they don’t seem to care. It used to be that the only place you found “fake news” was standing in the checkout lane of the grocery store, thumbing through the National Enquirer. There was also Mad Magazine, but they were honest enough to call it satire.
By the way, did you know that the toilet paper shortage during the first few months of Covid was caused by a group of cross-dressing Haitian immigrants who snuck into the U.S. and planned to exchange the toilet paper for visas? A Georgia politician said so on YouTube, so it must be true.
It’s been a longstanding practice in the entertainment industry for publicists to tweak someone’s bio to make them more appealing to the public. A lot of dark celebrity secrets have been hidden thanks to fictionalized life stories. Unfortunately, the practice was picked up by political campaign managers, and people stopped checking to see what was true or false. I absorb most of what I hear on the news outlets with a skeptical ear, until the anchor person says “According to our fact checkers…” When they say that, I pay attention to find out what they got wrong.
That reminds me of another public service message that made the rounds. I heard that you can avoid the flu by drinking an ounce of Mr. Clean before going to bed at night. Of course, the odds aren’t good that you’ll wake up the next morning, but at least you won’t catch the flu. Someone in Washington, D.C. posted that on Twitter, so it must be true, right? At least they didn’t recommend sitting on a cactus as a cure for hemorrhoids.
I’m a fan of shows like “Law & Order,” where they flash the disclaimer “Although inspired by actual events, this story is fictional…” I occasionally watch crime re-enactment shows like “Dateline” and “Unsolved Mysteries,” too. The ripped-from-the-headlines concept has inspired many crime fiction writers, myself included. Looking at it realistically, though, you have to ask “Who do they think they’re kidding with that work-of-fiction bull? If it’s fictional, why do the names sound like the actual participants, and why are the locations the same as where it really happened?”
Like many writers of contemporary mystery/thrillers, I get ideas from current events or my own life experiences. Publishers make it easy for us by putting that nifty little disclaimer at the front of the book, the one about it being a work of fiction. I rely on that disclaimer, and I even consulted an attorney about it once. He informed me that when describing a location, I could use the actual name of the establishment, as long as I didn’t say anything derogatory about it. For example, I can name the Marriott Key Largo Bay Resort as long as I don’t say that it’s a front for drugs, gambling or prostitution. It may very well be, but I can’t make the claim.
I’ve found that I have to exercise caution when it comes to characters, too. How many times has one of your friends or family members sworn that you based a character on them or someone you both know? It’s happened to me a few times. Likewise for the things I have my characters doing. Has anyone ever asked you how much of your story is fictional and how much of it is based on personal experiences? Been there and done that. I won’t deny that many of the plot twists I use were inspired by an actual life event, but I never give away the store when answering that question. And I flat out refuse to answer if it pertains to the sex scenes.
Did you hear that a group of radical Canadians launched a satellite armed with a laser beam? It’s pointed at the American side of Niagara Falls in case they get more tourists than the Canadian side. It must be true because I read about it on Instagram. They even had a video.
As a wise old scholar once told me, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Of course, that same scholar was convinced that JFK was assassinated by renegade CIA operatives employed by Castro, and that NASA staged Neil Armstrong’s moon landing on a Hollywood soundstage. Remember those rumors in the pre-internet age?
Sometimes, fake stories can have destructive consequences. How about when actor Burt Reynolds injured his jaw while filming a fight scene that got out of hand? It resulted in TMJ, he was restricted to a liquid diet and lost thirty pounds. The painkillers he took led to addiction, and he was physically unable to work for a long time. In spite of those well-documented facts, the tabloids claimed he had AIDS. He didn’t, but his career comeback was delayed a few years because of it.
Speaking of celebrities, I read on Facebook that Elvis Presley was spotted leaving a Krispy Kreme in Cleveland, Ohio with a box of jelly donuts tucked under his arm. It was online, so it must be true.
I once gave an interview to a newspaper in the Florida Keys, which is the setting for my Nick Seven spy thrillers. The reporter gave me a wonderful write-up, and e-mailed me the PDF so I could get a sneak preview before the print version hit the stands. The original headline was “Former spy finds paradise in Ohio man’s novels.” I was thrilled. When the print copy arrived, they had trimmed the headline to make it fit the page. The new one was “Former spy finds paradise in Ohio,” right above my head shot. I laminated a copy to use at personal appearances, and the reaction I get from people is priceless. They read the headline, see my face, then look up and see me. Their eyes shift back and forth a few times, then someone will invariably ask me if I’m the former spy. I just smile and shrug. Sometimes I really have fun by saying “If I answer that question, I’ll have to kill you.”
There’s a line in the classic Western film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” A newspaper reporter is writing the life story of the title character, who parlayed the shooting of a vicious outlaw into a political career. When the reporter exaggerates the man’s accomplishments, he objects to them embellishing the truth. The reporter’s response is “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”