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

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 about what to include, how to present it, and how, ultimately, to give it an "aura" of verisimilitude. This always involves shifting and contextualizing "facts" in the interest of whatever version of "realism" dominates the culture in question. If this were not the case, we would not be having the heated debates about the canon and multiculturalism that so divide us now. The question is never, simply, "What really happened?" It is: "Whose point of view should be presented?"

That McGinniss or Stone - or Shakespeare, for that matter - has taken liberties with the facts in his recreation of historic characters and events is not, then, what makes their work most problematic. Indeed, not all the targets of the current "fact-finding" crusades are equally problematic, or problematic at all. Some of them - Shakespeare, certainly, but also many historic movies and docudramas - contribute positively to public thought and debate.

What is most troubling about such authors as Kelley and McGinniss and producers of trashy, "instamatic" docudramas is not that they distort "reality." It is that they fail to engage us in a serious effort to grapple with the meaning of our common world, our common history. They demean and degrade us. as citizens and human beings by trivializing and sensationalizing matters of true social and moral significance. They insult our intelligence by refusing to take seriously the issues that trouble us, or provide analyses that lead to possible solutions.

Even the trashiest of these works raise issues of concern to all of us. Trash, after all, is a quality of presentation, not human experience. Sex and violence, surely, are serious matters which can be handled as trash and sensationalism or as social and moral questions. Gossip, as a friend of mine likes to remind me, is called sociology, or anthropology, or psychology when done by men with PhDs.

Certainly, Shakespeare's work bears this out. Look at his story lines, his tales of sexual and political intrigue, of madness and mayhem. Why are these not trash? Not, surely, because he had accurate tapes of what Lady Macbeth said to her husband. Shakespeare's "untruthful" versions of history are infinitely more valuable than the Waco docudrama, or the McGinniss book, because they are serious, complex treatments of human experience.

And by the same token, I would argue that Oliver Stone's JFK - no matter what one thinks of its particular version of history - was a work of seriousness, of intellectual and political challenge, which spoke to important issues of democracy and government, while McGinniss's book about the same family, and many of the same events, was trash. Both invented and imagined things. Both were big-ticket, media-financed bonanzas. Both were glaringly promoted and publicized, and then roundly condemned and demonized by media pundits. But because the discussion - produced and orchestrated by the media themselves - focused only on the issue of factuality, none of the concerns I have just raised entered in.

In this and other media-driven discussions, we are in the grip of an ideology of "objectivity" as the mark of all virtue, which obscures the larger issue of what is being sold to us, ideologically, when we buy any of the messages of consumer culture. It is a truism, well documented by social and cultural historians from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin to Vance Packard, that when one divorces a fact or a commodity from the social context in which it is produced, one robs it of its deeper cultural and social meaning.

An advertisement for Excedrin, for example, may be factually accurate in its claim to reduce headache pain. But it is not nearly so "true" in a more important and complex sense. when it implies, dramatically and visually, that stopping the immediate pain will cure the emotional and social problems that produced it. For these problems, as the Excedrin ads document brilliantly, if subtextually, have to do with the stresses of life in a sexist, post-industrial society. And the same can be said of history or public-policy documents. Merely insuring that they "get the facts right" hardly ensures that they are "true" to social reality or that they provide help in understanding or tackling social problems.

As someone who has studied and written about TV movies for years (and who has seen more of them than anyone should admit to), I have been embarrassed and irritated by the publicity surrounding them this year. I began my study because I was struck by the little-noted fact that TV movies - from The Burning Bed to Roots to such lesser-known but excellent works as Roe v. Wade, Kent State, and Catherine: Portrait of a Revolutionary - have been almost alone in presenting serious, intelligent treatments of social and political issues from a reasonably progressive point of view, within the limits of commercial television.

But, as the Amy Fisher, Waco, and so many other fiascos attest, most of the recent examples are far from serious or commendable. And this, goes the conventional wisdom, is because trash is what "everybody" wants to see. Since everyone watches, say the critics, everyone must really like this stuff. "Aren't audiences just getting what they demand?" is the question I am often asked by interviewers.

The answer is "absolutely not." Certainly, "enquiring minds" did watch, and did "want to know" about Amy Fisher and David Koresh, to borrow the phrases of The National Enquirer. But part of the reason was that the media themselves had inspired their curiosity by insisting upon the stories' importance.

Even then, what most people "wanted to know" was very different from what they were told. In every talk-show discussion of the Amy movies, for example, audience members and callers insisted on absolving themselves of responsibility for the trashy coverage and berating the media producers and critics who made these claims. The viewers - Phil Donahue had a roomful of them one day, some of whom came from Fisher's community and knew the principals - were outraged at the sexist slant of all three movies, the demeaning way in which white suburban kids were portrayed, and the failure of the movies to present any intelligent analysis of what it all meant.

Not only did these viewers expect better; they also had reason for their expectations since they had, in the past, seen many docudramas, especially those dealing with gender issues, which were very good. The Amy Fisher story, after all, was ultimately about something serious and troubling, although no media coverage mentioned it: the sexual exploitation and alleged child abuse of a young girl by one and perhaps two grown men.

This is not more or less "sensational" than the story, or the issue, upon which The Burning Bed was based. That is, an abused wife who set her husband on fire. But that movie, as is generally agreed upon by all but the most virulent haters of television, was a work of commendable social analysis and insight, which played at least some role in educating a nation about the evils and injustices of our traditional attitudes and laws regarding domestic violence.

Why couldn't Amy Fisher have been treated this way? The answer has more to do with changes in the economics of the media than in its moral values regarding "truth." The three Amy movies were done in a matter of weeks in a sloppy, sleazy, moronic way in which sex and gender issues were reduced to tabloid trash. The Burning Bed was done with care, time, seriousness, and a concern for important ideas and policy debates. When it was produced, more than a decade ago, it was still possible to get a network to bankroll a relatively serious work like this one, and to allow the time needed to develop it intelligently. To be sure, it had to be promotable as "violent" and "sensational." It had to feature a big-time, sexy star in the lead. And it had to fudge many of the "facts" and even some important issues raised by the case, in order to fit the generic and ideological constraints of commercial television. But it still managed to convey something that was important, progressive, and inspiring about the story.

Despite the success of The Burning Bed - which still brings in millions with reruns and video rentals - its social seriousness and high production values are rare in today's docudramas. And the occasional good movie that does get produced is not funded or promoted in ways that make it a visible, prominent, "must-see event" like the Amy Fisher vehicles. And that's because the newer, trashier models are given all the play. But these newer films, it must be said, would not even exist if the better, more serious classics, like Roots and The Burning Bed, had not made the form itself so very popular and marketable. This is a case of bad product driving out good in a money-driven industry. It has little to do with audience "demand" for lower and lower quality.

What is the real reason that most of what we see and read lately is beneath contempt when judged by serious, socially responsible criteria?

The publishing, movie, and TV industries today are a scandal because blockbuster-type sensational titles are almost the only ones produced, while smaller, more serious, alternative, or offbeat works - whether books, films, or video - are pushed out of the market. Popular authors and artists are seduced with six- and seven-figure advances into producing the sleaziest, fastest down-and-dirty junk they can churn out, while serious artists and writers go begging for the few crumbs left. And no sooner does a serious writer or artist get some attention than she or he is similarly offered larger contracts and budgets - which are hard to resist - to produce bigger, slicker works.

The issue of "truth," then, is the reddest of herrings in the effort to understand and improve popular culture. It's a buzz word like "family values," easily waved around in a way that arouses lots of people, for varying reasons, to salute it. So it takes attention away from the real cause of low-quality, socially irresponsible media.

I had some firsthand experience of how this works just last summer, when I was interviewed on a national news program about this issue. The occasion was the publication of the McGinniss book. As the author of a book on docudrama, I was asked to link this event with the issues raised by the Amy Fisher and Waco movies, an idea which pleased me because - I thought - it showed a bit more depth of thought than usual. I told the producer, over the phone, what I planned to say, more or less, and she said it was excellent. Then I spent the evening polishing my three little sound bites. (I am a "media expert," after all; they weren't going to catch me off guard.)

But when the crew showed up to tape the interview, it was clear that: (1) the reporter had already written his story, leaving gaps for the quotes I was supposed to provide, and (2) the story itself had nothing to do with the "excellent" things I had planned to say. The crew taped forty-five minutes with me and then went back to the studio and extracted - out of context and inappropriately - a few phrases which bolstered their prepackaged take on the matter.

One example: They asked me, three separate times, if I didn't think, after all, that audiences got what they wanted and deserved, and got no satisfaction. So they took what I did say - pretty much what I just said here - and used bits of it to make their point. To be specific, I explained that audiences cannot be said to "get what they want," since they are offered so uniform and poor a selection. "The world," I explained, is "filled with serious documentarians and historians whose work is not seen or read" because they can't get it published or produced.

Here's how they handled this question: They took the phrase quoted above, stuck it after a lead-in that said something like "Aren't viewers really getting what they want? Author Elayne Rapping thinks so," and made it seem as though I was blaming audiences for their own bad taste, since "the world" is "filled with" good stuff that goes unseen and unread.

And so, once again, viewers were left to ponder the problem of "truth" in the hands of amoral writers and artists (the main focus of the piece) and with their own moral and intellectual failures in "choosing" lies and trash. But I am not really interested in what happened to my pearls of wisdom, or even in the moral or legal issues raised by such practices.

I relate this tale only to raise the point that the whole question of "truth" and "factuality" in media is far more interesting if one examines the discussions about the issue rather than the works themselves. And this is not, primarily, because the producers don't tell "the truth." To be sure, the news report's use of my words was not "truthful." But the bigger crime, in my view, was their refusal to allow an important issue to be talked about in any other way than the one that served their purposes: the one that insisted on author integrity and audience taste as the only factors at issue.

Finally, there is a danger in this debate and its perversions that must be mentioned. Because the media have us so hung up on issues of truth and factuality, and so myopically focused on the morals of individual artists and authors, we are likely to see this discussion veer dangerously toward matters of regulation and censorship rather than where it should be going: toward matters of money and the responsibility of state-licensed media to serve the public interest.

Elayne Rapping, the author of "The Movie of the Week," appears in this space every other month.
COPYRIGHT 1994 The Progressive, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Words:2869
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