‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ finds journalism at a perilous juncture

Carrie Paff in ‘The Lifespan of a Fact.’ All photos by Kevin Berne.


JULY 5, 2024 (48hills.org)

As a journalist, I never thought I’d be wistful for the halcyon days of Stephen Glass. The disgraced superstar writer of The New Republic was once considered an anomaly, an aberration of how even the highest of journalistic standards can falter, the high crime of complete fiction passed off as fact. The Stephen Glasses and Jayson Blairs (the latter of The New York Times) weren’t the standard, they were just cautionary tales of how our industry is still run by humans and therefore, subject to human error. That’s what we told ourselves, anyway.

In the years since, greater corporate influence has led to even greater distortion between fact and fiction in mainstream media, with public trust (and subscriptions) at an all-time low. As a progressive, I’ve always had a distrust of mainstream media (thanks, in part, to growning up reading the SF Bay Guardian—thanks, Tim!), but even I could recognize high standards. Now, The New York Times, once the US watermark for high-quality daily journalism, is the go-to place to find COVID misinfo about unproven theories, where transphobia is the norm, and the where pro-Israeli writers spread blatant lies about Palestinians. Let’s not even get into Heather Knight, now spreading nationwide the doom-loop propaganda she honed at the SF Chronicle.

Knowing that Glass’s downfall came from a false story about the tech industry lingered in my mind as I watched The Lifespan of a Fact (Bay Area premiere through July 21 at Aurora Theatre). At one point, the play’s magazine intern Jim Fingal (Hernán Angulo) says that the internet has fundamentally changed the fact-checking process. Whether seeking truth or wanting to tear down a story they hate, an omnipresent army of digital scrutinizers will pore over every word and punctation of a story for the slightest flaw, as if they were looking for the “self-destruct” button that would collapse the entire building upon itself. That’s not the sort of environment where one can expect a story to be taken at face value.

Elijah Alexander and Hernán Angulo in ‘The Lifespan of a Fact.’

But before we get to that scene, we find ourselves in the Manhattan office of Emily, editor-in-chief of an unnamed magazine (played “no-bullshit” by Carrie Paff), as she fawns over a heart-breaking essay by author John D’Agata (Elijah Alexander). It’s a piece about suicide in Las Vegas, using stories of people whose deaths seem so patterned that they almost have a rhythm (hint, hint). Emily is happy to publish it as-is, but she’s worked with John before and knows that “[he’s] known to take his little liberties”. As such, she has her wet-behind-the-ears Harvard intern Jim (he wrote for the Crimson!) fact-check the story over the weekend, so that they can send it on Monday.

Jim is happy for the assignment, until he actually gets started. This kid—who may have undiagnosed OCD and/or Asperger’s—obsesses over discrepancies in the very first sentence. As he neurotically combs through public records about the history of nudie clubs in Nevada, he can’t overlook numbers seemingly rounded up rather than the exact number. Perhaps hoping to get the kid out of her hair, Emily suggests that Jim direct such queries to D’Agata himself. The kid does more than that: he shows up at D’Agata’s front door. What follows starts as a battle of Gen-X artistic license versus Millennial nitpicking, before turning into an uncomfortable exploration of story semantics and outright lies.

When the latter happens, director Jessica Holt (a Bay Area original who briefly left us for the east before returning) stages the action so well that I was struck by how easily the characters became the Freudian model of the psyche: John is the Id, doing everything short of repeating John Ford’s Man Who Shot Liberty Valance line (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”); Jim, the Super-Ego, seeing any deviation from empirical fact is chaos; and Emily, the Ego, negotiating to preserve the poetics of the prose without getting them sued for libel. This is brilliant direction, married to sharp performances of an intelligent script (by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrel, and Gordon Ferrell; based on the non-fiction book by the real D’Agata and Fingal.) Holt’s taut direction— and the intimacy of the Aurora mainstage—have us literally looking over the shoulders of our trio, wanting to chime in with our own opinions.

An opening night full of theater folk meant that most of the production’s audience (myself included) have taken an active role in the story-making process at one point or another. But people’s lives aren’t always as simple as narrative beats or a three-act structure. I myself was recently asked about the role of the critic in the artistic process. What I said, and have said for years: critics hold a standard. What makes the character of Emily so fascinating (especially as played by Paff and directed by Holt) is that she knows that creating an interesting story isn’t as simple as “sticking to the facts,” because that’s what a spreadsheet is for. Rather, sensational stories “just because” are part of the publishing industry downfall which she herself bemoans. She represents a natural middle ground between two opposing forces trying to tear her apart. With AI threatening to drive the wedge even further, I can’t imagine how that character would function in the year 2024 without just losing it. That’s what makes her and her co-stars so intriguing to watch.

As usual, I couldn’t help but notice how this show about finding truth found an audience of folks shirking horrifying COVID facts and attending unmasked. Obviously, I had mine. I also had my Aranet4, which saw the mainstage’s CO² readings hit 2217ppm by the end of the 90-minute, intermission-free show. No matter what questions were raised onstage, the ongoing pandemic is the truth to which most people have knowingly blinded themselves.  But that’s why we journalists have to hold up the standard for what is and isn’t. To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes, “If one person says, ‘It’s raining!’ and another says, ‘It’s not raining!’, then the journalist should look out the window and report the truth.”

The Lifespan of a Fact isn’t about looking outside, it’s about looking in to see what connects. it’s an uncomfortable ponderance on an industry under siege. I may not know what shape media will be in a few months from now, but watching Holt’s cast ask the same questions makes for one of the best shows I’ve seen so far this year.

THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT Bay Area premiere runs through July 21. Aurora Theatre, Berk. Tickets and more info here.

Charles Lewis III

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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