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Journalism Today: Telenovela or Truth?


Randall B. Smith - published on 12/05/14 - updated on 06/07/17

Facts would serve society better than narratives that fit our emotional needs

To begin with, I have a confession to make: I sometimes read the articles in "The New Yorker." There used to be an old joke about men who claimed they looked at "Playboy" magazine “just to read the articles” (or at least, this is what they would say). But of course, “occasionally,” they might find themselves glancing over at the pictures. I have the opposite problem. I go to "The New Yorker" to look at the cartoons, but then occasionally find myself glancing over at the articles. If anyone comes in, I turn the page quickly and say in as believable a tone as I can: “Just looking at the pictures!”

The classic criticism of magazines like "The New Yorker" (a criticism, in fact, which goes back to at least 1946) is that by telling you how you’re supposed to feel about a topic, they absolve you of any need to actually think about it. That may not be entirely fair. "New Yorker" articles are certainly some of the best-written in the business, and they often provide a host of important information you won’t find in other mainstream venues. And yet, by the same token, their approach to every subject is to write about it as though it were another one of their short stories. Certain characters need to be “sketched” for the audience. These sketches set a certain “tone” for the article, like the mood music television “news magazines” like “48 Hours” uses to indicate to the viewer who the bad guy is.

Consider, for example, as a case in point, chosen rather at random, an article from several years back on an Ecuadoran court case against Chevron over environmental damage from oil fields in the Amazon. The author, Patrick Radden Keefe, spends several pages describing the plaintiff’s case and especially the plaintiff’s lead lawyer: “a tenacious American named Steve Donziger,” who, "The New Yorker" helpfully informs us: “works out of the paper-strewn kitchen of a two-bedroom apartment that he shares with his wife and young son, on the Upper West Side.” But Donziger, as it turns out, also does a lot of business in restaurants. “He will set up shop over lunch at the Ocean Grill, opposite the Museum of Natural History, and work his phone until all the other patrons have left.” And of course “Wherever he goes, a MacBook Air is tucked under his arm.” We also discover about lawyer Donziger that friends refer to him as “Big Steve”; that he played basketball at Harvard with Barack Obama; and that he has devoted his entire career to this single case against Chevron.

The opposition’s lead attorney, by way of contrast, was, we are told, Randy Mastro, of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a firm “more than century old” and “that has a thousand attorneys.” Our author, Mr. Keefe, usefully informs us that he “visited the firm’s New York offices, on the forty-sixth floor of the MetLife Building,” a crucial detail no doubt for those wishing to visit the firm after reading the article, and in these very impressive offices, miles above the Ocean Grill where “Big Steve” sets up shop, he found Randy Mastro, “who has peaked eyebrows and unruly white hair,” and who, “even by the pugilistic standards of the New York bar,” “has a reputation as a merciless litigator.” We’re not told among whom he has this “reputation” as “merciless,” but perhaps the office receptionist might have told him on his way in.

According to our author, when Mastro was at City Hall during the Guiliani Administration, he “occasionally wielded a baseball bat during meetings, to accentuate a point.” (Didn’t Tom Cruise do that in “A Few Good Men”?) The "New York Daily News" once observed, moreover, we are told, “that Mastro was the only person in the Giuliani administration who made the Mayor seem like a nice guy.” (They obviously never met the mayor’s secretary on a bad day.)

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