The danger of story-telling
December 12, 2002
At some point in the 1960s reality changed and a handful of American writers invented “New Journalism” to deal with this change. They widened traditional reportage to include sense-impressions and subjectivity because facts alone no longer told the story. “Yesterday, two thousand people marched in a protest rally in Alabama…” was the wrong way in to an event; you missed the point if your reader couldn’t feel the menace of the Klan members there to confront the march, the truncheons and dogs, and the presence of that hugely charismatic preacher at the centre of everything. Reality hadn’t changed at all, of course, but the old way of looking at things left out too much of the flavour, the `zeitgeist’, of the times.
JFK’s assassination and Malcolm X’s, Dr. King’s and RFK’s, the Vietnam war and Watergate are all cases in point. None makes much sense if you limit yourself to the facts because they took place in a context of turbulent change. Each offers multiple explanations and dozens of lingering details. Faced with this glut, a good journalist who felt the mood tried to pass `that’ on to his or her readers: the singularity of the moment, not the particulars that would end up in schoolbooks. That day in Dallas, when a camera caught the president’s shooting, was probably what tipped the balance. You could study the individual frames of the Zapruder film, analyse audio from police dispatchers, read the Warren report and the thousand conspiracy theories and still not really know what had happened. Jack Ruby’s public killing of Oswald shortly after remains equally mysterious. (Crime-novelist James Ellroy, in `The Cold Six Thousand’, has probably come as close as anyone to catching the specifics of that day; he mixes fact and fiction and never writes about the assassination itself.)
Consider then, the dilemma faced by journalists since. The mind-bending unreality of the Iran-Contra affair; Reagan’s staff showing him Hollywood films to fill him in on modern history; Clinton’s private life. Waco. Oklahoma City. September 11. Consider also the difficulty of describing experiences in a short non-American list: the collapse of the Berlin Wall and communism, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, the Iran-Iraq war, the intifadas. The list is long and lengthening because our news tastes have shifted towards novelistic coverage, good stories. Once we have a few strong impressions of these places and events, we feel that we have “understood.”
Certainly the news can be full of quasi-fictional surprise. This month, for example, there is a UN weapons-inspector whom Washington Post reporters found to have no advanced degree in the relevant disciplines, who was a former Secret Service agent and is a teacher of sexual slavery and other unusual practices at a pansexual sado-masochism club called the Black Rose. This outstrips the wildest flights of modern fiction. Here, the facts alone bring home the shock of the new. The problem is that important things get jumbled up with the distractions of narration. The Secret Service background of the weapons inspector is far more troubling than his sexual quirks, for example, but it isn’t hard to guess what received more coverage.
Storylines get confused. Cherie Blair’s real estate dealings with a “con-man” may snowball into a full-blown scandal and undermine trust in the Blair government at a time when the UK is poised to follow America into an open-ended war in Iraq. (Remember how questions over Hillary Clinton’s real estate choices ballooned into the extraordinary expense, political manoeuvring and bathos of the Starr investigation.) Across the ocean, Henry Kissinger, one of the most questionable public figures in American history — as worthy a target for a UN special prosecutor as anyone alive — is heading an investigation into September 11. (One of many available ‘defining moments’, from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book `The Final Days’, as Kissinger and Nixon pray in the Oval Office when resignation has become inevitable: “The President prayed out loud, asking for help, rest, peace and love ... And then, still sobbing, Nixon leaned over, striking his fist on the carpet, crying: ‘What have I done? What has happened?’ Kissinger touched the President, and then held him, tried to console him, to bring rest and peace to the man who was curled on the carpet like a child.” The author Joan Didion later dubbed this kind of reportage “political pornography.”) Meanwhile, in a far-off country called Ethiopia, up to 14 million people whose private anguish we will never have the privilege of witnessing face starvation. When enough are dying and they look sufficiently grim for our cameras, we will give them more space on the news, maybe even as much as Winona Ryder’s trial for shoplifting.
“Reportage supplies modern man with a constant and reassuring sense of events going on beyond his immediate horizon . . . [a] release from his trivial routines, and a habitual daily illusion of communication with a reality greater than himself,” wrote the British academic John Carey in a preface to an anthology of eyewitness accounts. In many ways it fills the gap left by the decline of religious belief. It is not surprising, therefore, that the techniques of literature and reportage should converge. Art has always underwritten belief. One major problem, however, is that the new priesthood is so preoccupied with the news as a commodity (stock options and market shares) that they do not worry enough about the value of the news and the way it is put together and disseminated. All of us feel we know Bill Clinton and the George Bushes (we often talk about them using first names) and this celebritising of the world often blinds us to what is really happening. Our reporters have excelled at scene-setting and character description but have been culpably negligent of the plots. So while many of us can talk learnedly of sports and entertainment, where the techniques of fiction work brilliantly, all too few of us feel comfortable with the harder realities that lie beyond the illusory thoroughness of modern news.