News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: "Mr. Kurtz, He (Not) Dead"

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"Mr. Kurtz, He (Not) Dead"

The row over whether some author gussied up his story of beating drug addiction has twisted so many people's undies so tight that the whine over truth in fiction or fiction in truth is becoming a screech.

In his review of current ethical issues relating to journalistic and literary ethics, "In the Fog of War, A Moral Haze," Howard Kurtz makes some decent observation about this issue of what to leave out, when, and why. He takes Mr. Frey, the most egregious miscreant in this regard, for many, as an example of where publishers and others have skewed and warped the clearly defined line between fiction and reality.

Strangely enough, Kurtz does not mention the most recent and egregious failure in this respect among journalists, ie, the reporting that led up to the Iraq War. I have not read Mr. Kurtz's pieces where he does lambaste the press for these failures, but I imagine they are as scathing as his denunciation of Mr. Frey. ...

It's interesting that Frey's case has elicited so much controversey. For surely the US TV viewing public is used to "reality" spun and manipulated to fit a familiar story line. Few who watch so-called TV docudramas would even question the "reality" depicted therein. Yet, these are just someone's story made to look good for primetime TV. After a TV producer, scriptwriter, and director get done with telling someone's "true-to-life" story is it anywhere near what actually happened?

What makes these TV docudramas any more real than what Mr. Frey in his book, A Million Little Pieces, has done? When someone sets down to write, there are things they can include or exclude. This process itself calls into question any so-called universal objectivity. For TV, the writer and director are going to produce a story that's "entertaining," whatever that means. Verisimilitude with actual events is a secondary if not further removed consideration.

The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz once commented on this editorial process in writing about Dostoevsky's biogarphical account, The House of the Dead, of his prison experience in Siberia. Doestoevsky had to leave out certain things which either detracted from the story he was trying to tell or even those things that would have scandalized his audience--such as the true brutality of the place, not to mention prison sex.

Yet, Dostoevsky's book is a classic. It's a story told by a master novelist, who knows how to weave fact and observation into a keen and realistic indictment of a system that unjustly condemned him to several years in prison.

Now Kurtz does nothing but simply describe example after example of cases where the ethics "issue" is supposed to appear. Except for a somewhat disingenuous question here and there, he does not himself provide any guidelines for discerning what is or is not an infraction of the journalistic objectivity I imagine he expects all of us, his readers, to accept.

Don't get me wrong, I agree with Kurtz that facts are facts, and the journalist's job is to provide as many of these, along with the relevant context, as he or she can. This is a given. What Kurtz misses in his critique of the regining practices among journalists is not so much the reporting of the facts, it is what facts and for what purpose these facts are floated into the general swamp of information we call the media.

There were lots of facts floating around before the war; the problem was, nobody questioned them or provided the correct context for them. The context is the power-play in Washington that results in the manipulation and spinning of facts to such a point that they reflect a fairy tale that only a power-broker would love because its deception helps him or her to maintain control. Isn't it the journalist's role to see through this deception? I do not find this requirement among Mr. Kurtz's own problems with journalistic ethics.

I'd also ask Mr. Kurtz to question his own assumptions about literature and what it is supposed to do and not do. Throughout the western canon of literary masterpieces, you can find instances of the mixing of fact and fiction. Dante's poem, Divine Comedy, comes immediately to mind. Dante's greatness is his ability to take personal and communal history and intertwine it imaginitively with Christian and pagan myths. While a modern reader is not willing to guarantee the verisimilitude of Dante's journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, very few readers who have actually understood the poem would say it lacks truth.

And were Mr. Kurtz or anyone else to say that Dante never intended the poem to be taken literally, I would vehemently disagree. That is perhaps the marvelous irony of the work--that it does indeed pretend to realism.

Again, the examples could be multiplied. The point is that great fiction has the power to present truths whose appearance is by all measures equal to or greater than the truths of mere fact. Of course, these comments do not in any way imply that the TV docudrama or even Mr. Frey's novel are great pieces of literature or art.

I will probably never read Mr. Frye's work, if only because I have such other favorties whose story of redemption far outpace Mr. Frey's, not to mention my own story along these lines. And I doubt that his work approaches the grandeur and power of Augustine's Confessions, Kierkegaard's Either/Or, or Ginsberg's Howl.

But when it comes to truth and fiction, journalists of this generation will be remembered for their bowing down to power and finding only the facts that you can take to the bank. In some people's eyes, this is as much a fiction as any novel ever was, no matter how many facts you parade before the mind.

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