In a time of such singular global anxiety and uncertainty about what we are hearing, how do we weigh the source? We are afraid for our lives.
Do we listen to antiviral Anthony Fauci, blunt-above-all Angela Merkel, walleyed Donald Trump? Are “they” telling us all they know? After three years of sowing the seeds of doubt about the press, is there anything left in the bank of trust for the media?
Bad-sport Bernie now points a bitter finger at the “venom” he finds in the “narrative” of “corporate media.” He sang a different song before Super Tuesday, when media had him winning. The goal, Bernie, is to report the news of the day, not make it.
We live in a truth-challenged era. Writers are a window both ways, through which we peer at who the authors are. The Wizard of Oz wears no clothes. Looking back to earlier crossroads where fact and fantasy met and shook hands, Charles Dickens was one of the first to deliver the lived truth of the underdogs of society embedded in fictionalized and stylized narrative.
Social justice writers who followed lacked Dickens’ hard-won authenticity. John Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, but lifted much of its grit from field notes by Sanora Babb of the Farm Security Administration, whose supervisor shared her observations with Steinbeck when he wrote for the San Francisco News. He went right to the wine without stomping the grapes.
In the same year he won the Nobel, Steinbeck published “Travels with Charley,” his ostensibly nonfiction 10,000-mile journey with his standard poodle. In the words of Steinbeck’s son, “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that (expletive).”
We are now busy parsing who has the right to tell a story, whether believable or not. Our conversations are cloaked in political correctness over plain-spokenness. Consider Jeanine Cummins’ bestselling novel “American Dirt” and Oprah Winfrey’s disavowal of the Sundance documentary “On the Record,” which tells Time’s Up tales of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Two of today’s tempests in a teapot, they are a looking glass through which we have crashed full-frontal, shards of a society beset by factually challenged thought-leaders.
Cummins’ novel puts vivid flesh on the immigrant crisis at the border. The novelist is Hispanic, if not Mexican — her apparent failing — and gathered five years of location research, which is five more than Steinbeck did. Yet her “right” to tell the story came under fire even before the novel’s release. In a PC pile-on, a Sunday New York Times book reviewer found much to admire, but caved to the temper of the times, feeling “deeply ambivalent. Perhaps this book is an act of cultural imperialism.”
Big words for a reviewer. It’s a novel, children; it ain’t Cortes.
In Oprah’s cause celebre, she was conflicted in dealing with the alleged depredations of Simmons. Saying the film lacked context, rather than worrying truth, she made the choice to self-sensor, washing her hands of her role as executive producer. One of the filmmakers got his start in my Sundance days, brazenly pushing the boundaries of good taste in documentary, but that’s what made his films interesting.
The more we pull back from releasing work, or telling a story without fear or favor, instead of a “market place of ideas,” as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas put the efforts of a publisher to “bid for the minds of men,” the more we come to resemble China, where early warning of a virus was held back. In Hong Kong, they arrest booksellers.
In this most litigious nation ever to step to the bar, where libel-chasers sprout like kudzu, it is no surprise that we have also developed skin so thin that you can see through it. Some filter what they say, others live in glass houses and busy themselves bleating and tweeting.
I haven’t always loved what has been said about me in the public space. Sticks and stones and all them bones. But hey, get over it. If no-one can write about or roll the camera on anything other than personally lived experience and indisputable fact, there would be only silence.
Intentions matter: try to get it right. Lest we forget what Benjamin Franklin, borrowing from Daniel Defoe, wrote regarding no less than the permanence of our very Constitution: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
There’s a lot we’re learning on the fly, but trust that when we know, you’ll know. This isn’t China. Yet.