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Tuesday 21 September |
The Feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle
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Journalism Today: Telenovela or Truth?


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

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.

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