The ongoing investigation into journalistic malpractice at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is a timely reminder that news is not simply the transcription of what has happened but something created by people who spend their professional lives condensing large amounts of data into readable copy. In some cases, as with the British tabloids, this information is acquired unscrupulously and used for entirely self-serving reasons (to increase circulation, to flatter the opinions of its publisher, or to tip the scales in political questions) but even when there is no ulterior motive the mass media’s role in shaping public opinion has become increasingly problematic.
In many developed democracies the media’s sway over politics has made it more powerful than individual leaders, even entire parties. This power has bred arrogance. A few years ago, when the British parliament tried to examine the News of the World about its news gathering practices, the paper’s editor ignored a request to appear before the parliamentary inquiry, correctly judging that she would not be held to account by the fearful public servants that, notionally, had power over her.
Newsgathering is also complicated by distortions that have nothing to do with politics, at least not in the sense of party affiliations. Earlier this month a popular programme on National Public Radio (NPR) apologized for airing a story on Apple factories in China that turned out to have important fabrications. When confronted, the segment’s author, Mike Daisey, conceded that his work did not meet the standards of “journalistic truth” (stories had been mixed together, embellished and several details had simply been invented), but he still claimed that his work told a necessary truth about labour conditions in China.
Daisey explained that his NPR segment had grown out of his professional work as a dramatic monologist. This apology cannot easily be dismissed as casuistry. Daisey’s monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” — based on the same material used for NPR — has done a great deal to raise awareness of working conditions in China’s factories. It has provoked audiences across America to consider the origins of their cherished devices – and the connection between the authoritarian state that uses exploitative labour to produce shiny gadgets for the West. His story is, essentially, no different to that told by human rights groups and journalists who have reported the facts about China without any embellishment. The real difference is that his story has been told more compellingly. (The monologue even caught the attention of Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak, who promised to ensure that Apple treated its workers fairly.)
Daisey’s concession has struck a nerve because he appears to be the latest in a series of high profile fabulists. A decade ago, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass established themselves in some of the most prestigious US publications with stories that were entirely fictive. Subsequently, James Frey’s best-selling memoir was shown to be full of distortions. More recently, the philanthropist Greg Mortenson was shown to have manipulated facts in Three Cups of Tea, his bestselling account of humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There is no need to defend the indefensible. Journalists have a duty to tell the truth and can never be excused from this duty. When other writers blur the line between fact and fiction, their reasons may be more complex. Certainly, many may do so for the usual reasons – laziness, incompetence, dishonesty – but there are occasions when work that could never meet the standards of ‘journalistic’ truth – Frey’s account of the experience of drug addiction, or Daisey’s impression of the Foxconn factory – can nevertheless provoke the public sphere in useful ways. That doesn’t make them reportage, but neither does the absence of a convenient label make them negligible.
Perhaps the most consequential distortion in recent reportage — though rarely included in the same category as Blair, Glass et al – is the work of the New York Times journalist Judith Miller. In 2003, Miller’s dispatches from Iraq helped sway American public opinion in favour of war even though the weapons of mass destruction she suggested would be there turned out to be just as illusory. Although not an intentional fabulist – Miller accepted flawed information uncritically – her impact on American life was much greater than all the other fabulists combined. But neither Miller nor the New York Times has yet paid the full price for their mistakes.