Last week in Newsweek, or some online entity bearing the Newsweek logo, David Mamet published an essay about gun laws that I didn't pay much attention to, largely because at first glance it was sufficiently boilerplate in a not even Peak Wingnut fashion—you know, "Karl Marx, blah blah blah, Founding Fathers blah blah blah, no you're wrong if you think that's what the police are for blah blah blah"—that it would appear to lack the requisite negative entertainment value I look for in such items. The column did excite the disapprobation of many of my fellows on The Left, and with good reason, and I was actually stimulated by something that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on his blog at The Atlantic, where he also linked to a similar musing by the great Scott Lemieux at the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog, wherein both men point out that Mamet's assertion that the "Founding Fathers" were "not even politicians" is, not to put too fine a point on it, utter bullshit. Coates goes on to wax not inappropriately indignantly about how he finds "the processs that produces this sort of work to be utterly amoral." That's one way of putting it. I not only have a window into this process, I was party to it back in my print days. One example, of a decidedly different scale than what Coates is talking about, but illuminating nonethless, involved Mr. Mamet himself.
I don't remember exactly when it was, but I seem to recollect the early part of the current century. One of my colleagues at Premiere, the guy in charge of the front-of-the-book section "Action," which was where we put the bitsy stuff, had heard from Mamet's agent—with guys like Mamet it's always the agent you hear from—who told him that Mamet had been experimenting with cartooning, and wondering if our magazine would be interested in running a monthly one-panel cartoon by David Mamet. We would pay for it, of course, and pay pretty heftily, because he was David Mamet. As I recall the fee would be something like the one a writer would get for a five-hundred word piece if he or she were to be paid a dollar a word.
Mamet's drawing style, if it could be referred to as a style, made James Thurber look like Gustave Dore. The jokes animating the cartoons were mixed. I honestly can't recollect any; I have a vague picture of a fake movie poster advertising a blockbuster picture about a giant octopus, and there was at least one lampooning movie executives, no duh, but that's about all I can conjure. (I did go through my limited collection of Premiere back issues looking for an example but came up with zilch. I did find the issue containing my pan of The Good German, though, I better get rid of that...) The point is the cartoons were largely not great, and when they were worse than not great they were embarassing. One thing I do recall, very clearly, and I think it's something that really summed up Mamet's contempt for the enterprise and contempt for us—contempt that, now that I think about it, we had, in a sense, wholly earned for indulging him this way—was that he submitted his "drawings" on lined notebook paper. He knew enough about magazine mechanicals to know these lines would be erased photographically. But the idea that he couldn't even be bothered to invest a little of the money were were paying him to, you know, get some fucking drawing paper (which he then could have written off as a business expense, as I'm sure he must have known) speaks volumes. Fortunately he had a contract. I say fortunately because it was a short term contract, and it soon expired, and we did not pursue its renewal, and Mamet's agent understood our not pursuing its renewal to mean that Mamet had tired of the enterprise himself and was busy with other things and so would not be able to continue. In other words, his contempt for us was such that he wanted us to understand that not continuing this exercise in mortification was HIS idea. This was the personal cherry on the top of his short con, and I have to give it to him: this short con was a nice one.
It was not too long after this misadventure ended that Mamet and his friend and collaborator Ricky Jay appeared at New York's Town Hall for a staged chat entitled "Two Hussies." It would essentially be Mamet and Jay discussing "the state of the performing arts." I went with some pals, among them at least one successful writer who idolized the author of Glengary Glen Ross and other theatrical pieces. And while Ricky Jay was his usual droll self on that stage, the author of Glengarry Glen Ross oozed such oily pompous self-satisfaction that we walked out en masse after less than forty minutes. I hasten to add that this was well before Mamet's much-bruited conservative conversion that's supposed to be the reason I don't like him. (October 2001, this was.)
Anyway, Coates nails it when he says "You cannot change the fact that Thomas Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Burgesses because it's unfortunate for your argument. Unless you have a name like David Mamet. Assuming that Mamet's Newsweek piece had an editor (and it's entirely possible and plausible that Tina Brown just pushed it into digital print after only allowing some copy person or other to give it a perfunctory proofing), that editor would likely have had no contact with Mamet himself. When you're dealing with a name like David Mamet, you submit your proposed changes through a third party, and that third party, usually an agent, gets back to you, and fairly often says "no" to your proposed changes, or sometimes not. (A couple of months ago I ran into Martin Amis in a magazine store in my neighborhood and because I'm such a schmuck I semi-sheepishly introduced myself and said to him "We worked with each other once. Via fax.") But again. I'm sure that the relevant people involved, the people with the power, merely said, if the idea even occured to them at all, "Fact-check David Mamet? Well, did you evah?" or some such thing.
Of course, fact-checkers themselves are like cops. There are good ones and there are bad ones. An associate of mine who works for a prominent person has recently had cause to be in correspondence with several fact-checkers, and they have been inundating my associate with questions such as "can you confirm whether X was a 'consultant' on the project or a 'special advisor'?" and for all sorts of other bits of data that could actually be gleaned via consultation of reliable and easily available outside documantation. But just as Premiere's publication of "The Mamet Version" (for this is what his cartoon feature was called) was a function of our own star-fucking tendencies—which we rationalized by telling ourselves that were weren't just indulging Mamet on account of his name but because of the great, iconic work he had produced, that we were counting on his talent—so too do fact-checkers (the bad ones) go places where they're not needed, or wanted, simply because it puts them in closer proximity to the famous subjects of the articles they're working on.
For example: At Premiere there was one fact-checker I considered a particular annoyance, because he did things like call Woody Allen's actual production office to verify the number of Oscars Annie Hall had won. Also, when we had occasion to make a reference to the actor Ron Perlman, he called the offices of Revlon to verify the spelling of the name. (This will be more fun for you to figure out yourself if you don't get it already. Trust me.) It is perhaps no accident that the fact-checker in question was (and, I suppose, remains) the son of a relatively well-known, and not particularly well-liked, political pundit. As they say, that's show biz.