Journalism and Art in Digital Societies (II)

On the Novelty of New Journalism

Reading the introduction of Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism (1973), I realised there was also a colloquial term in English for what in the Colombian journalistic lingo is known as la chiva [the goat]: it is called scoop journalism. Commenting on this scoop journalism, Wolfe described how, when he first entered a newsroom, the journalist was considered a “pedestrian mind, a phlegmatic spirit, a faded personality.”

This view of journalism in the 1960s, explains the position where literary critics and intellectuals located this practice within the general structure of the literary arts. This structure, as any other from the modern world, resembled (or resembles?) the form of a pyramid. Thus, the novelist stood at the top; followed by the “men of letters”, that is, the writers of essays, and finally, at the base of the pyramid, the journalists and freelance writers appeared as the “lumpen proletarians” of the literary world.

Wolfe acknowledged the rise of a group of American writers who, during the 1960s and 70s turned to journalism and impregnated it with a literary spirit. According to Wolfe, this meant the emergence of a new journalism, which rose to a level so far exclusively reserved for the novel.

Despite the undeniable value in the works of these new journalists, such as Wolfe himself, Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson, I believe the new within the title is an overestimation. Although Wolfe did acknowledge some earlier examples as antecedents of this new journalism, including Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris (1933), the general impression is that he is describing it as an unprecedented artistic and literary movement.

In his explanation of what constituted this new journalism, Wolfe recognised four devices that he believed could define it:

  1. A scene-by-scene construction of the narrative.
  2. The recording of dialogue in full-length.
  3. The use of third person point of view.
  4. The recording of gestures, habits, manners, decoration, ambience, etc. (Wolfe, 1973).

The combination of these devices, according to Wolfe, was what made the new journalism of the 1960s rise to the level of the novel, like no other reportage or investigative style had done before. However, one can find a reply to Wolfe’s arguments (although it would have to be an implied one) in the work of one of Wolfe’s contemporary authors from the other side of the Iron Curtain, Ryszard Kapuscinksi.

While Wolfe stated he and his fellow American authors were producing something new, in Travels With Herodotus (2007), Kapuscinksi acknowledged his role as a journalist as a continuation of what Herodotus had done twenty-five centuries before him. Who is right? As in many of the questions exposed throughout this thesis, to come up with a definite answer would exceed the limits of my research and, on the other hand, would not add anything particularly valuable to the debate on how journalism should evolve during the twenty-first century. What I believe is important to point out is the way art and journalism have converged in the works of the aforementioned authors. This combination is what has allowed such work to stand above thousands, if not millions, of artworks produced for “art’s sake” and remain as a more truthful representation of the world in which these authors lived (or have lived) than the millions, if not billions, of allegedly objective news stories produced by the modern editorial industry.

Despite the emergence of major authors like Wolfe, Orwell and Kapuscinski, I believe the editorial industry was hardly the ideal space for their kind of inquisitive spirit to prosper. So, how were conditions during the times of Herodotus? Did they make it easier for his inquisitive spirit to flourish? As Kapuscinski pointed out:

Herodotus was the contemporary of the greatest Greek tragedians –Aeschylus, Sophocles (with whom he might have been personally acquainted), and Euripides. His times were the golden age of theater (as well as much else), and stage art in those days was influenced by mysteries, folk rituals, national festivals, religious services, Dionysian rites. This affected how Greeks wrote, how Herodotus wrote.

Reading this, the notion of the 1960s’ new journalism as an unprecedented movement appears as, at least, a questionable matter. But, having exposed this apparent contradiction between the views of Wolfe and Kapuscinski, I believe it is more important to focus on the similarities in their standpoints: which in my opinion is what make these authors (and others like Orwell, Huxley, Capote or Talese), to be so valuable in their role as society’s “early warning systems”. These similarities revolve around the notion of the writer (and by extension the artist) as an outsider. And, as Kapuscinski also exposed, is defined by the way they interact with the other (2009).

Kapuscinski defined Herodotus as:

…the first to discover the world’s multicultural nature. The first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding, and that to understand it, one must first come to know it.

Therefore:

Herodotus is never shocked at difference, never condemns it; rather, he tries to learn about it, to understand and describe it. Difference? It serves by some paradox only to emphasize a greater oneness, speaking to its vitality and richness.  (…) All the while he returns to his great passion, his obsession almost: reproaching his kinsmen for their pride, their conceitedness, their belief in their own superiority (it is from the Greek that the word ‘barbarian’ comes from). (…) He begins with a fundamental, transcendent matter: where did the Greeks get their gods? Where do they come from? What do you mean, where do they come from? The Greeks respond. They are our gods! Oh, no, blasphemes Herodotus, we got our gods from the Egyptians!

Kapuscinski also narrated how, growing up in Poland during the Cold War, he was always intrigued by what lay beyond his national borders. But Kapuscinski was not a privileged Greek citizen: he was a common Polish one.  From a historical/national perspective, the Polish of the twentieth century would be the equivalent to any of the enslaved peoples of the ancient world. Hence, it can be argued that, in general terms, and even in conquered territories and under authoritarian regimes, the modern world is more apt for an inquisitive spirit like Herodotus’ to flourish than the time of Pericles. And the main difference between these two periods might as well be the existence of the printing press.[1]

Following this premise (or at least very similar ones), organisations like the API[2] are arguing that saving the editorial industry is the same thing as saving journalism. But it is easy to point out financial motives as to why the API would defend such premises. Thus, as laudable as their plan to rescue journalism may be, it still is nothing but a business plan. Their arguments must be evaluated with such bias in mind.

On Media Epistemologies and the Artist as an Outsider

But there are other, uncompromised views that seem to concur with the API’s plan; or at least they do so when comparing the influence of the printing press with that of electromagnetic and digital means of communication. Amongst these views, stand out those of communications theorist Neil Postman.

Postman (1995, 1999, 2000a, 2000b) argues that, not only the development of television and digital media, but all technological advances present us with what he called a “Faustian bargain”. Hence, for all that the printing press may have altered our sensory balance – as theorists like Innis and McLuhan argued – as part of the deal it has at least allowed the emergence of writers like Orwell, Wolfe and Kapuscinski. But where do these figures appear within the “epistemology of television”? Who is the television equivalent of Orwell? Or the equivalent of Wolfe?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to highlight what the artists studied in my research have in common. Based on a related essay I wrote about art and propaganda, I have recognised two features:

  1. That inquisitive nature Kapuscinski shared with Herodotus; which is also evident in the work of other writers like Orwell and Wolfe, and also in the legacy of painters like Goya and Dix.
  2. A critical view expressed in a form that lingers between moralism and satire: evident in the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel, as well as in the work of eighteenth century caricaturists and printmakers, such as Gilray, Hogarth and Daumier.

But how about television? Are there names coming from this media that may be included in this list?

In my opinion, comedians like George Carlin, Bill Maher or John Stewart fit the standard; however, strictly speaking, their origin is more theatrical than electromagnetic. There is, however, one example from Colombian television that I analyse in another related essay about history and memory in Colombian art, which is the late humourist and political critic Jaime Garzón.

One of the reasons why Garzón’s case is particularly relevant in this analysis, is because he became a major influential figure in Colombia – more influential than any writer from his generation – not despite, but because, he worked in television. This reminds me of an insight from Eduardo Galeano about being a writer in Latin America:

One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness. One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behavior and language of those who read… One writes, in reality, for the people whose luck or misfortune one identifies with – the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels, and the wretched of this earth – and the majority of them are illiterate.

Through his comedic sketches in television, Jaime Garzón spoke to those who could not (or would not) get to read The Open Veins of Latin America. Does this speak highly of Colombian television? Does it mean Colombian audio-visual artworks are superior to its literary ones? That would certainly not be my conclusion. Yet, it does seem to give some credit to Garzón for choosing the media that reached not only the largest audience, but included that which suffers the most from Colombia’s major economic, social and political problems.

But before moving into the Colombian case, I must return to Postman’s discussion on media epistemologies. In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1986), Postman includes a personal anecdote to remark on the value of the written word. While presenting his “doctoral oral”, Postman received the following feedback:

The candidate had included in his thesis a footnote, intended as documentation of a quotation, which read: ‘Told to the investigator at the Roosevelt Hotel on January 18, 1981, in presence of Arthur Lingeman and Jerrold Gross.

As Postman remembers, the aforementioned citation “drew the attention of no fewer than four of the five oral examiners”, who believed it was not “suitable as a form of documentation”. The reason for this, argued the jury, was that:

…the written word endures, the spoken word disappears; and that is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking.

The first argument I can think of as a possible reply to this statement would be: yes, but for the same reason, the written word is also the best instrument to turn lies into official truths. This is, after all, the driving argument in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). After reading (and listening) to theorists like Postman (1986) or Morozov (2011), one gets the impression humanity is cursed to linger between the Orwellian and the Huxleyan dystopias. If this is so, then one of Postman’s contradictors may ask: isn’t orgy-porgy better than room 101?

Postman on Cyberspace

Another thing that one of Postman’s contradictors may ask would be: isn’t what I’m doing technically called typing? That is, of course, if the person asking the question is doing so in the same fashion as I am writing this essay. Which leads me to another of those endlessly debatable questions: What is writing?

After typing in Google’s search engine – that is, after googling – the phrase “Postman on cyberspace”, the result at the top of the list links to the video of an interview Postman gave in 1995 on the PBS News Hour. At the beginning of the interview, Postman defined cyberspace as a “metaphorical idea”, representing “the space where your consciousness is located when you are using computer technology”. Later on, he introduced the notion that, not just the Internet, but all technological advances, present us with a “Faustian bargain”. And later, he argued that the development of an “Information Superhighway” could produce “people overloaded with information” and “information junkies.”

So, what can be said about these definitions? About their meaning and their epistemology? And about their validity as quotations in an academic work? Are they “suitable as a form of documentation?” The investigator, in this case, certainly hopes so. And if they are, this raises new questions about the validity of the written word. As Postman remembered, one of the arguments why the jury did not believe a spoken statement was a “suitable form of documentation” was because “the written word endures”, while the “spoken word disappears”. But, how – or where – do Postman’s answers in the aforementioned interview fit within this duality? So far, that is approximately sixteen years after the interview, Postman’s statements have “endured” through digital means.

Another of the jury’s arguments in response to Postman’s inclusion of a spoken statement was that he was “not a journalist”, that he was “supposed to be a scholar.” This reminds me of Wolfe’s explanation of how people in the sixties and earlier regarded the novel as intrinsically superior to all journalistic writings.

Beyond the issue of, whether by definition a journalistic investigation is less serious than an academic one, an argument in defence of the printed word, which can be extended to its comparison with an audiovisual recording, for example, a YouTube video, is that the printed word has to go through several filters and revisions before it gets published. This argument seems almost impossible to rebut, until one takes a look at most of the newspapers, magazines and even books displayed at newsstands and the few remaining bookstores one can find in cities around the world.  On the other hand, what percentage of the population has access to serious academic publications?  Which leads me to the question: How are those serious academic publications favouring society?

This reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s critical approach (1968) on the emergence of Marshall McLuhan as a public figure. As Wolfe described it, McLuhan’s sudden rise to fame did not happen despite the fact no one was able to understand him, but because no one was able to do so. In this regard, I believe it is fair to point out how Postman was so much clearer and, if I may add, far more entertaining in his writing, than McLuhan (and I mean that as a compliment).

Postman remarked on the necessity to raise what may be considered as uncomfortable questions about the influence of digital technologies on contemporary societies. In his PBS interview (1995) he presented three questions that, he argued, must be asked in regard to the development of all technological advances. They are the following:

  1. What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?
  2. Whose problem is it?
  3. If there is a legitimate problem to which this technology offers a solution, what new problems are created with the development of this technology?

Also in YouTube, there is a seven-part series (i.e., a video divided into seven parts) of a conference called Technology and Society by Neil Postman (1998)[3]. In this conference, Postman once again raises the three aforementioned questions, and complements them with another three, which are the following:

  1. Which people and institutions will be harmed the most by the introduction of this technology?
  2. What changes in language does this technology bring?
  3. What sort of people and institutions will acquire the most power with the introduction of this technology?

Clay Shirky (2011) argues that the development of digital means of communication have granted groups of common citizens with greater facilities to form a discussion and ultimately coordinate actions. In response to this, Evgeny Morozov (2011) states that, if digital networks, indeed solve a problem by allowing common citizens to share information and coordinate their activities, it also allows authoritarian states and multinational corporations to track down this information and police  citizens using digital networks.

Although his questions can be extended to the influence of technology on all social aspects, Postman’s theories are mainly focused on the issue of education. This brings me to the question: How can the development of digital technologies affect education and the academy as a social institution?

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Journalism and Art in Digital Societies (III)

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[1] This, however, is a debatable point: for ancient writers like Diogenes and Aesop were slaves.

[2] American Press Institute.

[3] The original conference took place in Calvin College (Michigan, US) in 1998.

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