A new biography of the great 20th century journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski is causing a stir. His biographer Artur Domoslawski accuses Kapuscinski of making it up — of making some of it up, anyways. And his accusations have reignited the controversy over truth’s inviolability in the work of professional journalists.
Kapuscinski is like Canada’s Farley Mowat who some years ago was the target of a similar complaint — in fact, a rather savage attack that also accused him of making it up (Mowat’s face appeared on the cover of a widely circulated national magazine with an enlarged Pinocchio nose). And there is the recent reputational crucifixion of James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces and memoir-writer-cum-reluctant-novelist who made too much of it up for America’s apparently (and selectively, one might add) fact-hungry public, not to mention Oprah and her fans.
The idea of the ‘lie’ in journalism can still provoke a certain kind of righteous outrage. But what gets lost in the excitement is the conversation about truth itself. More specifically, outraged critics hardly ever suggest just what the unimpeachable approach to the truth might be.
Growing skepticism about journalism runs deeper than doubts about a few erroneous facts. An increasingly media savvy public has begun to suspect that the truth always arrives in the mouth of a speaker — that is, always from within language, culture, experience. The more serious problem isn’t the inviolable truth of this detail or that, but what will happen to a profession that hangs all of its hats on the peg of truth when the possibility of truth itself is up for grabs.
Witness the demise of the daily newspaper and much lamented crisis in journalism. In 2008 alone, over 6000 journalists lost their jobs and over 40 newspapers went belly-up in North America alone. There are technological forces at work here, to be sure – the ways an emerging networked information economy is transforming how we participate in culture. But the less obvious transformation is in how we experience social truth. And unless the conversation about the news catches up with the ways online worlds of collaborative culture have altered our experiences of public knowledge, journalism as a genre risks being left behind in a morass of old-fashioned huff’n’puffery.
Some might point fingers at the journalists themselves. Indeed, their concern (at least professionally) is with a set of practices which guides them — and us — towards recognizable standards of truth. Most of us know them even if we think we don’t: objectivity, neutrality, fairness, relevance, immediacy, and a kind of ‘news worthiness’ that captures preferences for things like spectacle, sphere of impact, proximity, etc.
What is less obvious is that these are historical inventions. 19th century newspapers tended to reprint source documents — parliamentary records, transcripts of speeches, letters, and trials — verbatim. “Realism” was an approach to news based on providing raw evidence and letting readers sort it out for themselves. The New York Times, for example, told the story of the Titanic by reprinting a series of telegraphs reporting the event – the first ones incorrectly reporting no loss of life, and subsequent messages providing ever more accurate details. It was a shy kind of journalism, the authority to collate and interpret not yet having been established. Journalism wasn’t yet recognized as a way of knowing.
In other words, our objective, fair and immediate way of making news is a style of information. Which begs the question: where in this style lies the truth?
Kapuscinski is one example of a more literary approach to journalism, and within it is an intelligent, compassionate and keenly observant interpretation of events and experience. In Canada, Farley Mowat’s similarly literary works have touched generations and shaped perceptions about the people and lands of the Canadian North. Why should there only be one way for such great observers and writers to describe the real?
There are in fact many kinds of truth we encounter on a daily basis: historical truth, scientific truth, poetic truth — not to mention sociological, artistic, legal, mathematic, and philosophical engagements with reality. A part of journalism’s failure is its unwillingness to acknowledge the precariousness of its trade. It trades in truths, but by hiding truth’s ambivalences — the ways in which news necessarily involves decisions and elisions — often becomes a stooge for some other force, be it markets, politics, influence mongering, or whatever It blinds itself to its own interesting practices and does so at our expense.
Kapuscinski’s journalism of experience does none of this — and more. His observations are rooted in his humanity. He kept two journals: one for dry facts, one for reflections, which is clever. But as a comparatively affluent European male observing in the continents of Africa, Latin America and Asia, it seems safe to assume that even the dry facts recorded will in some way have been guided by who the recorder was at the time.
Kapuscinski’s work is a forerunner, it might be argued, to the blog world and independent media’s more positioned reporting of what is happening in the world. An account that looks for social justice reveals a point of view. “Objectivity” of necessity eliminates experience — the author’s to start, and then more. Perhaps experiences that challenge the credibility of assumptions on which relationships of power are built. Objectivity is as much a sword as it is a shield for those who wield it to defend their credibility.
It’s time to stop the battle cries over “truth” that only go as far as the tired dichotomy of true/false. Notions of truth are essential. But the conversation has to expand to include the multitude of ways in which truth becomes recognized.
There is a great conversation to be had here, we just haven’t had it yet. Kapuscinski’s work is a significant contribution to understanding the human condition, periods and places in history, and even language. And if a narrowly defined journalism is too fragile a vessel to hold this remarkable gift — and all of the other gifts of independent and creative and citizens journalism that have come available through digital technologies and networks — then the problem is journalism’s, not Kapuscinski’s.