humans are not journalists

The yard had to be mowed again this morning. We’ve arrived at Peak Grass, without the balancing effects of Peak Heat, so the blades double in size every week. When it gets hotter, the grass will slow down (just like people!), but we’re not there yet.

So after I finished my swim (thanks, Coach Paul!) I yanked on scruffy clothes and hustled out to tackle our lawn care. Which means: podcast time! Today was chiefly Revisionist History, “Free Brian Williams,” which is the second part of Malcom Gladwell’s exploration of memory (find the first part here). In “Free Brian Williams,” Gladwell traces the career-destroying story that news anchor Brian Williams told about a war episode. Both podcasts are fascinating, about the ways our experiences and the ways we recall them, along with our understandings of ourselves, become entwined and intermingled.

It’s another look at something I’ve been mulling for a few years now: why do we insist on presuming all telling must be journalistic to be true? That if a telling does not fit in journalism’s (or its sibling, modern history’s) framework, there is no value to it? Throw it out! It’s all lies, worthless!

If the Bible is true, the events of the creation stories must be precisely inscribed in the geologic record! If they’re not, throw out the Bible!

Y’know, it’s arguable that even journalism in its various heydays hasn’t ever been Journalism, that Platonic ideal of event-truth standing absolutely outside all human filtering. That’s part of what Lacanian intersubjectivity and Derridean deconstruction were pointing out in the late 20th century—as a human, one is constitutionally unable to remove one’s particular, idiosyncratic humanness from whatever one does. Even if one tries hard to do so—a worthy and important effort, akin, I think, to empathy—it’s naive to think one can remove all traces.

Besides, the story your mother tells you of that time when you were in preschool is not journalism. Wasn’t the first time she told it; isn’t during this telling at your birthday party; never intended to be. You knew this already—your aunt, who also was there, tells it differently. So why would you pound your fist on the table and yell, “One of you is lying!”? The truth of this story isn’t contained in a reportage of events. The truth of this story (these stories) is to shine a light on sprouts of your character which are now full-grown.

When talking about the Bible, which is treasured, ancient, and held to be truthful (truth-filled?), I more and more frequently hear—and myself say—the truth of the Bible is not about journalistic reporting. For starters, ancient people weren’t as focused on journalism as current folk. So it’s silly to take a text that’s not a news report and (a) force it to be one or (b) insist that since it isn’t, it’s all as fictional as Wuthering Heights.  More to the point, the Bible is telling truth about the nature of God, which is a much, much larger thing than a news report can hold. (Shoot, even telling the truth about you is much larger than the journalistic narrative of your daily actions!)

Back to the case study of Brian Williams. He participated in the incident in question; he was a reporter “embedded” with a military unit. It’s the telling and occasional re-telling of the incident that eventually breaks him, since a reporter’s tellings can be reviewed and compared with each other. Gladwell uses the case to make a point about the (researched and demonstrated) cognitive facts about memory. He wants us to consider: as our retellings shift—which research demonstrates they almost invariably do—are we liars, or are we doing something more obscure? If we don’t know we’re shifting the tale, we’re not doing this on purpose, and if what we’re doing is not intentional, can that fit into our usual definition of what liars do and why they do it?

Worth considering-!
And yet at the same time I headed down a different track.

Brian Williams was an “embedded reporter”: someone whose presence and purpose was to bear witness. To tell the story, whatever that group’s story might be, to those who would otherwise never hear it. Williams wasn’t fully a part of the group since he was not a soldier. But the responsibility is strong—I believe those who tell the stories of others, who want to ‘do right’ by the folk whose stories they tell, somehow and inevitably feel connected into the group whose story they’re telling. The first time the story is told, it’s “their story.” The tenth time the story is told, it is becoming “our story.” When you’re telling “our story,” you have become a part of the action, because your emotions of “ourness” put you there. There’s a truth in there that you want the hearers to understand, that is easier for them to grasp if you make it immediate. None of this is intentional or articulated, mind you. It’s the unspoken urgency of honoring the group for which you’re the witness.

Telling the truth is not always reportage if the truth is more than bare actions. The impulse to honor the group does not line up with our intuitive understanding of the self-focus of “liar.”

 

When we tell the stories that belong to our family, we are partly telling the emotional, behavioral, character-driven truth of what it means to belong together. We may do what we can to keep the names lined up, and the actions accurate, but ultimately those are not the important elements. “Who we are” is what drives us to tell the story, not “what she did.”

In some respects, the Bible is our collection of family stories, handed down for millennia. Stories to help us see who we are, and whose we are. Those tellings and re-tellings are more than journalism. They’re part of bearing witness to the immense truth of God-the-Three-In-One. As we too bear witness, we help tell that truth—it is now our story. All, and still, true.

 


ps: I don’t think humans are innately journalists; I think it’s an acquired skill. But I hereby affirm that journalists are innately human. 😉

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