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Journalism Today: Telenovela or Truth?

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Randall B. Smith - published on 12/05/14

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.)

Be that is it may, I think we’ve got the picture. What we have here is David and Goliath narrative: a young, idealistic single attorney in a private practice fighting against a tough-as-nails corporate lawyer and his assembled minions from one of New York’s biggest and most well-heeled firms. The author doesn’t need to say this outright, but the picture he has painted is pretty clear. It doesn’t quite matter after all this setting of the mise-en-scène that the question the article is meant to address is whether the “little guy” in this particular case went “too far” by using some documentary film-makers to help build support for his case and by actually writing the decision for the court in Ecuador. More recent American court decisions have suggested he did. But then again, perhaps our powerless little David had to fight dirty to defeat this powerful Goliath. Or at least, that’s the impression we’re left with.

Whenever I read one of these pieces, it always makes me wonder how I might be described in one of these "New Yorker" pieces. What would they say? “Randall Smith, rather unremarkable looking at five foot, eleven inches, except for a shocking white head of hair, obviously uncombed since breakfast, shuffled into the classroom somewhat distractedly in an old, worn tweed jacket he bought at a local Good Will store.” All of this would be true, of course, but I can’t see that it would be of any relevance in judging anything important I might have to say. If I were making an argument about Catholic social justice and the value of a market economy, for example, would these details help readers understand or my argument or would they be mostly distracting? Isn’t it possible that readers might say to themselves: “Oh, yeah, one of those academic types. Of course he is going to say X.”

A novelist can give his reader insight into his characters by means of such descriptions because he is their creator. As consumers of news, we must be content to judge from people’s deeds. We can’t see into their hearts or make judgments about their character from the computers they use or the restaurants they lunch at. It’s only due to the Freudian presumptions of our “therapeutic culture” that we believe we can – that somehow we can read deeply into the psyche of the individual actors by reflecting on the consumer choices they make, the kinds of places where they live and work, and the way they carry themselves when they’re with others.

No doubt these little details give the article a certain liveliness. Authors write these little personality novelettes because that’s what draws readers. And quite frankly, in this case, it was marvelously done. I read this article with pleasure. It reminded me why I’ll never be good enough to write for "The New Yorker." My question is not whether all of what Mr. Keefe has written about the antagonist and protagonist in his story is true, but of what relevance the details have to the case under consideration. Unpleasant tough guys can make good arguments, and young Davids can sometimes sin grievously. (Check your Bible about a certain young David if you doubt it.)

What we lose when we indulge ourselves continually with these dramatic little telenovelas, I would argue, is a proper focus on the truth of things. So although I now know what sort of computer the plaintiff’s attorney uses (a Mac) and what floor of the MetLife building the defense attorney works on (the forty-sixth), the color of each man’s hair, the size of “Big Steve’s hands and that he played basketball with Barack Obama in college, I still have no idea what the nature of the environmental damage in Ecuador is or who caused it, which, one would have thought, would have been the truly important point.

If I want character studies, I’ll read a novel or a good short story. What I need is someone to do the research that I have neither the time nor the resources to do. I need to know the essential facts of the case so that I can judge for myself whether Chevron is really guilty to the tune of 18 billion dollars or not. I’m eager to hold guilty corporations accountable for their crimes, just as I’m eager to hold guilty rapists accountable too. But it does no service to justice to punish those who are not guilty simply as a psychological release for our frustration at crimes we can’t (or haven’t done enough) to control.

Trials are not soap-operas meant for our amusement and titillation. Nor should we turn them into a sideshow to the great emotional debates of our age. Trials are disturbingly particular in their details, and for that reason often dull to those who haven’t the patience for such matters. But the guilt or innocence of a defendant can be discerned only after an exhaustive analysis of all those dull, boring, very particular details, just as the determination of what caused an airline crash is not necessarily to be found in the excited comments one hears in the days after the crash, but in the patient, exhaustive analysis of the information gleaned from thousands and thousands of airplane fragments, from flight data recorders, and air traffic control tracking. As any representative of the pilot’s union will tell you, “pilot error” is almost always one of the first conclusions people will jump to. It’s not that “pilot error” is never to blame; it’s simply that “pilot error” alone is rarely a sufficient explanation, and often enough “pilot error” has nothing whatsoever to do with the crash. This fact often doesn’t keep airplane manufacturers and reporters from making the claim (or at least suggesting the possibility) fairly quickly.

I do not intend to make any comment on the events in Ferguson, Missouri, either about the evidence in the case or the arguments used in the hearing before the Grand Jury, other than to suggest that it is precisely the unavoidable particularity of trials that makes them an especially poor context within which to work out our collective social grievances and anxieties. Of the thousands upon thousands of words written or spoken about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, very few of them had to do with the actual physical evidence in the case.

It is important to remember that the defendants in a trial represent no one but themselves. Indeed, they don’t even represent themselves; we ask attorneys to represent them in court. The Scottsboro Boys did not “stand for” the dangers that black men posed to white women in 1931 any more than Alfred Dreyfus “stood for” the dangers Jews posed to France in 1901. We don’t hang men like Adolf Eichmann because the Holocaust disgusts us; we hang Eichmann because he committed crimes against humanity. We need to make sure the guilty are punished. But if the men we accuse did not commit the crimes for which they are accused, and we hang them anyway as a therapy for our collective guilt, then we will have become what we condemn: murderers of the innocent.

Trials are an imperfect process. But I would rather trust that very rigorous “due process” to arrive at a clear understanding of the truth of the matter than I’d trust that awesome responsibility to the ever-excitable denizens of the contemporary media circus, many of whom approach these matters and interpret such events through a pre-set narrative “lense” and who have learned to craft characters and frame a narrative the way short story writers do, rather than allowing the details to tell their own story. They have learned the fine art of pitting one side against the other for the purposes of selling an exciting story. What we as a society need, however, is news. What we need are facts, not societal narratives.

We need these things so that we can make informed judgments about the truth of the matter, and because what we would want if we in an analogous situation is to be judged not on the brand of our computer, on the kind of jackets we wear, or on the basis of the people we used to play basketball with, but on what we actually did or didn’t do. I don’t want to be reduced to the category “absent-minded professor” as a way of judging my psyche and thereby not taking me and my arguments seriously, any more than I suppose other people want to be reduced to the category “stay-at-home mother of six rowdy youngsters” or “hard-nosed female boss with a reputation for bitchiness” or “white cop.” Reality is usually more complicated than even the best novels can portray, and characters are often more complex than even the best writers can make them. People who want to write short stories should do so. Reporters should stick to the facts.

The health of a society is shown not when they’ve forced on the court what they’ve convinced themselves is the “right” outcome of a trial; it is, rather, when they’ve had the patience to allow “due process,” with all its faults and restrictions, to do the limited job it was designed to do. Justice isn’t only something judges and juries do. It’s something we establish every day – in the way we live with others, in the way we speak humbly, in deference to reality and the truth of things.

Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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