Journalism vs Art

One of the best things about being a John S Knight Fellow at Stanford is that when a line of thinking tugs at you and you’re struggling to reel it in, all you have to do is put the word out to the other 19 journalists in the group and before you know it, you’ve convened a group of smart people to hash out the idea with, most often in the sun over a glass of wine.

This was the case recently for me. I’ve been fascinated by the slippery link between art and journalism for many years (theres a reason why this blog is called ‘lies like truth’) and in light of the brouhaha surrounding This American Life’s retraction of its Mike Daisey program following the revelation that the monologist fabricated details in his acclaimed solo show about the conditions facing workers in Apple Computer factories in China, I decided to convene a discussion among members of my fellowship program.

It was a small group of five (three of us pictured above) that met up in front of Stanford’s Student Union last week for a chat about this topic. What began as a discussion about the Daisey affair (we all seemed to agree that Daisey crossed a line in not being clear about his storytelling approach, regardless of whether he was telling his story in the context of a theatre production or a journalism-focused radio show) quickly devolved into a hot debate about the basics of what it means to be a journalist and practice journalism.

It was a great discussion because there was a lot of lively disagreement. Some people in our cohort felt that the media still has the power to be a trusted source of information for the public and should maintain scrupulous fact-checking and other ethical standards. Others thought that this notion was hopelessly idealistic and at best aspirational.

The main takeaway that I got from the conversation was a confirmation of a reality that I was already growing to understand — that “the truth” and “the facts” are blurry concepts even in the most rigorous of media settings. Thanks to the tech boom and the economic downturn among other factors, we are entering an era where this is becoming increasingly the case as the media landscape fragments and commentators and reporters become increasingly “artful” in their attempt to rise above all the noise and get attention for their stories.

The conclusion? Every individual journalist and media organization, large and small, should have a long hard think about the basic rules or tenets that define their work, even going as far as to codify a set of rules for how they aim to operate in the world. The rules will be different for different people, but it’s setting standards in the first place that matters.

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  1. says

    Jim Walton, the President of CNN, once made a richly ironic statement. He said that “At CNN, our view is that good journalism equals good business.” Telling the truth can be very bad for business. The renegade journalist, Alexander Cockburn, seemed to have this in mind when he said, “The First Law of Journalism: to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.” The comodification of “truth” can lead to a sharp divide between journalists and corporate owners. As a general rule, journalists who toe the line dominate, and those who tell inconvenient truths vanish.

    We might also remember that post-war journalism has a very checkered history. Have we forgotten that the CIA front organization, The Congress for Cultural Freedom, *secretly* published nine different, influential cultural magazines. This allowed the CIA to play a significant role in shaping the West’s post-war cultural identity without the public knowing who was behind it. Have people forgotten that the CIA’s Operation Mocking Bird so effectively influenced the media that Frank Wisner, the CIA’s director of Special Operations, referred to it as his “Mighty Wurlitzer?” With this history (and much more) why should we think of the media as some sort of independently observed truth? Did all of those cold war manipulations just magically stop? Or as Noam Chomsky famously observed, is our understanding of the world manufactured?

    People should also consider the massive power of our international public relations conglomerates whose exact purpose is to manufacture “truth.” Already in the 1920s, the father of public relations, Edward Louis Bernays, observed that, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.” This might seem like a sort of Orwellian fantasy until we begin to understand the massive power and effectiveness of these organizations. These PR conglomerates, of course, are also experts at manipulating the media and its journalists.

    Now, after decades of conditioning, Western governments and corporations hardly even need to manipulate the media. The Judith Millers step forward on their own. Most careerists know which way the wind blows, and unlike Ms. Miller, they are sharp enough not to lose their credibility, or become the patsies on the rare occasions when the façade of lies crumbles.

    For these reasons, I long ago stopped reading the mainstream media for “news.” I read it to see what “the system” wants me to believe. (The system being essentially the financial elite in our capitalistic society.) They often publish the truth, but its principle function is to make the lies they include plausible. Hence, lies like truth.

    So what’s the moral of the story? I used to think that the best path to truth was in trying to sort out which independent, non-commercial websites run by informed sources might be useful for finding honest information. But I can already see how the proverbial “system” is also learning to manipulate the web. For one thing, by manipulating search engines, they can control the world we “see.” I have no idea where all of this will lead.

    My apologies for these negative and seemingly paranoid thoughts which will surely be seen as ridiculous. It’s not so much that journalists don’t want to tell the truth, but that they are often blocked from doing so. And worse, they are so bombarded with a culture of delusion that it is often very difficult to discern what the truth even is. At this point, even language itself has become subverted. So please keep telling those truths that are defined as “lies.”

  2. Carl says

    I don’t think you are paranoid, but please give some specific examples of “lies like truth.” And not the obvious ones such as the justifications for the Iraq war.

        • says

          It is interesting that you immediately want to remove Iraq from the table. Are we to assume the lies the government made in that case were anomalies? Do close similarities with the Gulf of Tonkin or the sinking of the battleship Maine make any difference or reveal patterns? Shall we rehash the Iran-Contra Affair, the drug running “freedom” fighters, and the hounding to suicide of the journalist Gary Webb by the Washington Post and New York Times? Shall we once again go into atrocities like Pinochet’s mass murder, the Mayan genocide in Central America, or the “disappeared” people of Argentina – all committed with the backing and support of our government, and the relatively silent complicity of our mass media?

          The web, of course, has many articles about how media collaborates with government lies. Here is one good example from MediaMatters.org:

          http://mediamatters.org/research/200512240002

          On the other hand, we should remember that lying is the crudest and least effective method of propaganda. If the US government/media relationship depended on simple lying, we wouldn’t have much of a problem. Lying is too fragile. It is often relatively easy to expose big lies, so they are avoided and used only in extreme circumstances.

          It is obvious that in “free” societies, the substance and authorship of propaganda must remain carefully camouflaged. As a result, the most effective propaganda, and the one most used by our ruling elites, is silence. When those 300,000 Mayans were mass murdered in Guatemala due to suspected support for leftist guerillas, the atrocities were unspeakable, such as “freedom fighters” wearing necklaces made of baby skulls because they thought it would bring them good luck. So many people were killed that the jungle overgrew their farms and changed the satellite images of Guatemala. Thanks to the silent complicity of our mass media, most Americans don’t even know this happened, much less the essential details. When the media is silent, it can’t be accused of lying. In fact, the issues involved will not even be discussed. That is one example of how American propaganda works.

          This silence also affects the arts. The USA, for example, is the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding. The availability and accessibility of the fine arts in our country is thus far below international norms. The media seldom addresses this issue. We thus continue to suffer under a plutocratic system of cultural funding that serves the interests of the wealthy and leaves the majority of country neglected.

          The second most used method of American propaganda is to cripple the truth with a thousand little cuts that are difficult to sort out. These methods make it almost impossible to perceive the agendas of the propaganda or to identify who is behind it. Even if one counters a few dozen small twists of the truth, hundreds more will be repeated thousands of times until we assume the over-all picture created by countless small lies are the truth. The political advertisements bought by Super Pacs are good examples to study. They also illustrate how the wealthy use the media to brainwash the public. The TARP bailouts of banks, national health insurance, and campaign finance reform are also good examples of how the truth is crippled by a thousand little cuts, endlessly repeated, and mostly serving the interests of the financial elite.

          The more volatile the topic, the more likely it is to be distorted or silenced. A good example is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The attacks on Tony Kushner for addressing issues of ethnic cleansing in 1948, the suppression of Alan Richmond’s play “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” the suppression of Carly Churchhill’s play “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza,” and the suppression of John Adams’ opera “Klinghofer” are examples. After a time, the suppression is no longer necessary, since artists see that they will face *serious* problems if they address the conflict in ways that challenge the status quo.

          From about 1930 to the early 50s, the USA had a wonderful culture of political art. Novels such as the “Grapes of Wrath,” the photography of Dorothea Lange, and the murals of Rivera Diego are a few iconic examples from that era. The artistic sensibilities of this era were forcibly ended by McCarthyism and the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom.

          Examples of political art, of course, came later, especially in the counter-culture of the 60s, but it was never again allowed the substance, breadth, and influence it had during the preceding era. One must also recognize the complicity of arts journalism in creating these changes, even if analysis and documentation of the problem would be an almost impossible task that would take a lifetime of research and writing. And of course, I write this with the ironic understanding that it will all be denied.

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