Monday, 8 June 2009

On Journalism (2)

Most essential insights on journalism (and on psychoanalysis, and on photography - on human nature, actually) I owe to Janet Malcolm of The New Yorker. The following quotes are from The Journalist and the Murderer and The Silent Woman

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, and loneliness gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, s the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns – when the article or book appears – his had lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and the “public’s right to now”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

The moral ambiguity of journalism lies not in its texts but in the relationships out of which they arise – relationships that are invariably and inescapably lopsided. The “good” characters in a piece of journalism are no less a product of the writer’s unholy power over another person than are the “bad” ones.

As I listened to Lucille Dillon, I felt more acutely conscious than ever of the surrealism that is at the heart of journalism. People tell journalists their stories as characters in dreams deliver their elliptical messages: without warning, without context, without concern for how odd they will sound when the dreamer awakens and repeats them. Here I sat, eating my Thanksgiving dinner with this stranger dressed in white, whom I would never see again, and whose existence for me henceforth would be on paper, as a sort of emblematic figure of the perils of the jury system.

What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.

The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism’s uncontested privileges, and the rendering of subjects as if they were characters in bad novels is one of its widely accepted conventions.

The narratives of journalism (significantly called “stories”), like those of mythology and folklore, derive their power from their firm, undeviating sympathies and antipathies. Cinderella must remain good and the stepsisters bad. “Second stepsister not so bad after all” is not a good story.

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