True Stories: These American Tales Are Damn Brilliant



My father’s early years as a scientist left an indelible mark on him. He told me; ‘When you want to read an true account or a manual on any subject, make sure it’s written by an American. They explain better and more clearly than anyone because they don’t preach to class.’ I took his advice and always found this to be true.

During my school years I became obsessed with the breaking of the Watergate story by American journalists. I read every book on the subject from every viewpoint, including those of  G Gordon Liddy, who said; ‘Obviously crime pays, or there’d be no crime’ and Rose Mary Woods, whose attempt to cover the 8 1/2 minute gap in the Nixon tapes involved a bizarre act of contortion by which she ‘accidentally’ erased them with her toe.


This fascination with the American way of telling true stories via the careful assembling of data from all angles made me want to train as  a journalist. I changed my mind after the UK relaxed its rigorous training rules, ditching the year spent in court reporting and altering the ‘two sources’ rule. The latter allowed papers  like the Daily Mail to make up stories by attributing a single anonymous source, which is why ‘according to a close friend of X’ stands for ‘according to what I want you to believe’.

It didn’t happen in America. My US obsessive reading carried on over the years. I followed the Simpson trial in the same way, reading every single book on the subject. I wanted to understand how a jury could acquit a murderer. Journalists like Sebastian Unger, who wrote ‘The Perfect Storm’ and authors like Dava Sobel, who wrote ‘Longitude’, continued this work for new readerships. British writers seemed not to have the same level of density and exactitude in their research, and too often had agendas to push, although there were exceptions; journalist Michaela Wrong has written astonishing investigations into corruption in Africa.


The arrival of podcasts raised the bar again. Radiolab’s extraordinary investigations into the human mind kept me tuned into every episode.’The Jinx’ riveted me, as did all of the extra material available on ‘Capturing the Friedmans’. Sarah Koenig’s ‘Serial’ extended this idea to a single story, intelligently constructed, interactive, with audio-visual material supporting its findings.

‘Making A Murderer’ takes the process a step further, but this time it’s tied to Netflix (a pain) and has raised questions about how such a story should be presented. But they’re good questions – it’s right that we understand how news is gathered, and how a channel like Fox News, which has removed the barriers between hard fact and extremist opinion, gets away with it – because there are viewers who honestly don’t appreciate the warped faux-journalism being peddled on that channel.


With the loss of the Indie’s print titles in the UK and the closure of Al Jazeera in the US, news gathering is at a crisis point. Without investigative journalists we have to rely on crowdsourced data, and a news collection system manned by hard-working amateurs may not be the best way forward.


5 comments on “True Stories: These American Tales Are Damn Brilliant”

  1. Matthew Davis says:

    Nora Ephron wrote an interesting profile of Rose Mary Woods for New York magazine, 18 Mar 1974. It’s online at:

    if that link works.

    Ephron wrote a few profiles on Watergate figures, which is presumably how she met Carl Bernstein, which when their marriage broke up gave the world “Heartburn”.

  2. arthur says:

    I think American writers do non-fiction beautifully – I would add Laura Hillenbrand (Sea Biscuit, Unbroken) and Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City).

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Americans may not have class bias but they certainly have money bias (how else do you explain the Donald Trump coverage?) and a fame bias (perhaps the explanation for Mr. Simpson?) as well as a bias against dark skin, especially a lower middle or lower class dark skinned person. (Oh, dear, that’s the class word, isn’t it?).

  4. Helen says:

    “A news collection system manned by hard-working amateurs may not be the best way forward.” Thank you. The loss of investigative journalism that came with the downfall of American newspapers is one of the scariest results of modern newsgathering–the belief that anybody with a camera can do this and the “look at me, I’m a news person, it’s about me, what I say is true ’cause I said it.” I hate what has happened to modern journalism, which coincidentally goes along with my deep disappointment with modern American politics. Stop taking endless pictures of yourselves America, read a history book, pause and think about events before spouting off an opinion or taking an action.

  5. Colin Stanton says:

    Making a Murderer is an excellent series, but very biased and a lot of the prosecution side is left out. For instance Avery’s sweat being found on the car, which is almost impossible to plant

Comments are closed.