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‘Truth’ Over Facts

Summary:
In his memoir, Banana Sunday, the late British newspaperman Christopher Munnion described his first encounter with what was then called New Journalism. This was a style of newswriting that got going in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more like long-form fiction than conventional reporting. The style relied on subjectivity and emphasized “truth” over facts. The idea was for the reporter to tell a story from the perspective of an active participant, rather than a passive observer. Munnion had been reporting on Africa for a long time for The Daily Telegraph, covering the transition in Africa from colonialism to independence. Like most reporters of his day, he reported on what happened, who was there, what they said, and so forth. It was

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In his memoir, Banana Sunday, the late British newspaperman Christopher Munnion described his first encounter with what was then called New Journalism. This was a style of newswriting that got going in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more like long-form fiction than conventional reporting. The style relied on subjectivity and emphasized “truth” over facts. The idea was for the reporter to tell a story from the perspective of an active participant, rather than a passive observer.

Munnion had been reporting on Africa for a long time for The Daily Telegraph, covering the transition in Africa from colonialism to independence. Like most reporters of his day, he reported on what happened, who was there, what they said, and so forth. It was the old-style reporting that had been the standard for generations. That meant going to the event, observing what was happening, and interviewing people about the event. The facts drove the coverage.

The new style of journalist came to the story with a narrative in mind. He was a storyteller who would provide the reader with a sense of what it was like to be in the story, at least the story the writer wanted to tell. As Munnion explained, the journalist showed up with a prepared narrative and then went around looking for people, events, and images to fill in the details. The facts were mere ornaments to decorate the story, not the point of the story.

Munnion was a seasoned Africa hand at that point, so he was amused to learn that these new journalists knew absolutely nothing about Africa and had no interest in learning. They just needed material to authenticate their story. Like most of the men of his generation, he just assumed the fad would die out, because ultimately, facts matter. Of course, like most men of his generation, he was wrong about what was about to happen to the news reporting business.

The term “New Journalism” went out of fashion in the 1980s, but the style never really died. Instead, journalism became more narrative. Simply reporting the facts was never coming back in fashion, especially for a highly partisan media class now populated by bourgeois radicals. Instead, the facts are crafted to fit the story, which conveniently supports whatever ideological fads are popular at the moment with the great and the good.

Modern narrative journalism has now advanced to the point where the narrative no longer has to have any connection with reality. In fact, it is probably better that it doesn’t, as the facts are most troublesome for narratives that claim some connection to reality. Instead it is best to come up with a good script that satisfies some desire in the audience. That way, they are not going to be too interested in looking for plot holes or conflicts in the story.

It’s why we were deluged with stories of heroic “first responders” battling the coronavirus at our overwhelmed hospitals. The COVID script required overwhelmed hospitals, so the journalist wrote stories about the overwhelmed hospitals. The fact that hospitals were mostly empty due to canceling all services did not register. New York City had hospital ships and an outdoor hospital, all of which sat empty, but that did not fit the story, so it was ignored and no one cared.

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