The trouble's not 'truth.' (media docudrama and news reporting) (Culture) (Column)

Author:Rapping, Elayne
 
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The media have a way of manufacturing their own ethical "issues of the day," setting the terms by which they judge themselves and arriving at answers that suit their own agendas. Violence has topped their list for quite some time now - "Let's beat our breasts, moan and groan publicly a bit, and get back to business as usual."

Their highly visible mea culpas on this score have become regular, predictable media events. But these mea culpas serve mostly to obscure the issue, distracting attention from the larger, more serious causes of social violence, while making everyone feel better, momentarily, about having "addressed the issue."

So it is with the latest big occasion for media breast-beating and self-flagellation: the demise of "truth" in mass media versions of history. Whether it's a big-screen historic drama like JFK, a small-screen docudrama like the classy And the Band Played On or the not-so-classy Amy Fisher and Waco reenactments, or a print biography like Joe McGinniss's The Last Brother or Kitty Kelley's Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, the popular work of history is destined to hit the marketplace with an all-too-predictable two-beat drum roll of media attention.

First we get the big-bucks promos, the ads, talk-show interviews, and arts-and-leisure-section features through which we, the public, are made aware that a really big-time event is heading our way, one that we dare not miss.

And then, just as predictably, we get the op-ed-page pieces, Time and Newsweek cover stories, network and CNN features and debates, and so on, in which the very same talking heads and bylines inform us that, by taking their advice and consuming these products, we have become dupes of the lying, money-grubbing, civilization-threatening media.

And why is that? Because - although they apparently didn't realize this when they sent us out to consume them - these popular histories do not tell "the Truth." They "blur the boundaries between fact and fiction," and thus confuse young minds and besmirch our proud history.

I agree that much of this stuff does, indeed, confuse young minds and besmirch our history, but the factual accuracy issue is hardly the major problem. Like the discussions of male violence, the ones on historic truth obscure and mystify the actual whys and wherefores of media production by taking a single, largely false, issue - factual accuracy - out of its social and cultural context and making it bear the weight of a problem that is far more complex.

Works of historic narrative, whether artistic or scholarly, are not, in fact, judged or valued primarily because of their factual accuracy. Shakespeare, certainly, did not "tell the truth" in his historic dramas. Like Joe McGinniss and Oliver Stone (at least on this score), he put words and thoughts and motives in his characters' minds and mouths in order to present a version, or interpretation, of historic events informed by certain values and meanings. And this is no less true of historians, from Herodotus and Thucydides to E.P. Thompson and Winston Churchill, to the current practitioners of post-modern and post-structuralist methodologies.

Each era, as is well known, creates its own standards and methods of "historic truth" based as much on commonly held assumptions about what is important and meaningful in our past as on factual verifiability. Every journalist or letter writer, for that matter, knows that constructing a verbal record of an event involves a good deal of decision-making...

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