Media Fictions and the Menace of Facts

Lately, I’ve been considering how I might combine three of my great interests – ethnography, journalism, and storytelling – to forge an alternative career path for myself. Given my recent preoccupations, Nathan Dobson’s short but thought provoking analysis on the role of “facts” in journalism caught my attention.

In addition to the discussion about how “facts” are treated like commodities in the accumulation of journalistic capital (in the form of “credibility”), I also think it is important to consider in more detail the way the distinction between facts and their representation play out in the contemporary news media. Dobson alludes to this when discussing how the peddling of ostensibly “pure” facts allows the journalist to remain hidden, as if the existence and circulation of journalistic facts were not dependent upon human action. In my view, this problem is highly relevant given contemporary media coverage (or non-coverage) of the atrocities currently playing themselves out all around the globe – whether it’s state-sponsored terror in Libya, mass killings along the U.S.-Mexican border, or the horrific mutilations and murders that continue to plague the Congo.      

My first significant encounter with the problem of treating “facts” as unadulterated pieces of information entirely separable from their representation comes from one of my favorite ethnographies – Michael Taussig’s Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Taussig recounts his struggles as he tried to sift “fact” from fiction in accounts of the atrocities that took place during the Amazonian rubber boom. Most of what we know about the violence and terror of the rubber boom comes from two sources: Walter E. Hardenburg, an American writer who fell into the hands of armed thugs hired by the Peruvian Rubber Company to terrorize Columbian traders, and Roger Casement, an Irish national who served as British consul. After a series of articles written by Hardenburg reporting the abuses appeared in print in Britain, the British government sent Roger Casement to the region to investigate.

What is most striking about the accounts of these two men is the stark contrast in the way each of them chose to represent the “facts.” Hardenburg basically put to print rumors (themselves a fantastic blend of fact and wild speculation) that had already been put to print in local newspapers. His own observations were conveyed with a dreamlike power, emphasizing the grotesque nature of the violence and the hallucinatory atmosphere created by the ensuing terror.

Hardenburg’s accounts of the ritual of violence and terror that characterized the rubber boom competition for labor came across as sensational, surreal, and melodramatic. Yet, as Taussig asks, is it not possible that the sensational, the hallucinatory, the melodramatic were all an inherent qualities of the terror being described? How do we really know whether to locate these qualities in the representation of what was taking place or in how things were actually being played out on the ground?

In any case, Casement based his account on actual interviews with people in the region and ended up writing a strictly realist account in defense of the Indians. Although he was disgusted by what was going on, he nevertheless did not conclude, like Hardenburg, that this was a case of senseless brutality. Rather, he claimed there was a logic to the horrific tortures and killings, which he attributed to the competition over scarce resources – in this case, labor.   

The stark contrast between these two accounts, Taussig notes, is instructive because it points not only to the dangers of succumbing to such fictional realities but also to what is inherently dangerous about making naïve appeals to realism in our accounts of them:

“Whereas the former consists of fragments of narratives (stories, vignettes, rumors) woven around, permeated by, and chiseled into mythic ones, Casement’s stories are more numerous and better substantiated. But despite and because of its studied facticity, Casement’s report served not so much to puncture the mythic character of the situation as to render its terrific reality. In other words, Casement simply reinforced the mythic character by substantiating it with facts – he supplied facts that only reinforced the fictions” (Taussig 1987:75).

Most journalists assume a world neatly divisible into “real” facts and our representations of them. If the accounts of Hardenburg and Casement illustrate anything, it is that this division is itself a fiction. Hardenburg conveyed rumors as matters of fact; Casement’s report (in contrast to his diaries, I should note) conveyed facts as entirely separable from the unreal atmosphere of ordinariness that characterized the testimonies from which they came (most of the report was based on accounts given by 30 blacks contracted from Barbados to act as overseers).  


The tendency to make fetishes out of facts and the refusal to recognize representation as a source of experience is, as Taussig points out, dangerous. When it comes to the representation of such fictional realities, whether ethnographic or journalistic, we might do well to ask, as William S. Burroughs did, what facts could have possibly given rise to such legends. But, perhaps, Taussig is on to something too when he suggests that we should also be asking what legends give rise to such facts. Our retelling of their telling is fraught with peril because in adding to the chain of storytelling our representations unwittingly risk becoming part of the extra-official means by which terror is manufactured and circulated.

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Comment by Nathan Dobson on March 13, 2011 at 1:37pm

Great post Ken.

The point cannot be emphasized enough that real-life narratives get lost amongst the facts. This is perhaps even truer with real-time news, where in the commotion of a fast-moving event a quote from one person can be packaged as the voice of say a nation's army or "the left

I admire Agence France Presse but it certainly seems mechanical at times, pumping out the facts. I was thrilled to find out on their website of journalist blogs (here) that there were actually real people behind the reports; that they were sometimes scared and sometimes too busy to follow up leads

In real-time news the facts are the big turning points in the story; they shape how it ebbs and flows. Have a look at this live report of what AFP reporters were doing in the build up to Mubarak's resignation. The whole thing is painted as being on a knife's edge, building towards the point when all the conjecture, story-telling, quotes, and narratives are solidified in a single moment, a phrase that will be the headline all over the world, the fact goes down in history. Mubarak officially steps down.

Comment by John McCreery on March 12, 2011 at 5:06am

One of the positive results of research on the social construction of science has been the realization that facts are not entities that exist independently of us. They are propositions that people agree to accept as given in the debates in which they engage. Said propositions may or may not correspond to external realities. What scientific and other scholarly methods provide are means of reaching agreement that increase the likelihood that our 'facts' point to something real. What Yellow Journalism did was increase the likelihood of agreement on 'facts' that may have been entirely fictitious. What the 24-hour news cycle and the infobabble with which we are now surrounded do is reduce the likelihood of any agreement at all outside the coteries that embrace one position or the other.


I accept these propositions as facts. What about you?


P.S. I remember a particularly prescient remark by a Washington Post reporter prior to the last U.S. presidential election. He observed that whichever party won members of the other would feel cheated. Why? Because they could now choose media (talk radio, blogs, whatever) through which they would only encounter people who shared their assumptions.


Comment by M Izabel on March 11, 2011 at 6:35pm
My current interest is the application of concepts and methods in economic anthropology that can connect poverty to corruption and how poverty and corruption can be controlled or eradicated.  I have encountered data that seem to be "facts" but actually "fictions" and vice versa.  I find it hard to separate the two because the masses rely on fictions being  parts  and parcels of their social drama.  The intellectuals have facts out of paranoia of losing credibility.  To solve the dilemma, I made two separate cases and analyses with one  based on facts and the other on fictions considering that what is a fact today maybe a fiction tomorrow and vice versa.
Comment by Keith Hart on March 11, 2011 at 6:31pm
Ken, I don't have specialist knowledge of this. The Wikipedia article on Poe has many links and the hoax I linked to in my comment leads to half a dozen of them.
Comment by Ken Routon on March 11, 2011 at 6:23pm
Thanks Keith for giving me yet another reason to appreciate Edgar Allen Poe! I didn't know this. Btw, where can I find Poe's writing on this, so that I may dig deeper. I also appreciate how you note the relevance of this issue to on-going academic debates and controversies.
Comment by Keith Hart on March 11, 2011 at 6:15pm

Ken, Thanks for bringing this up as well as drawing attention to Nathan's undeservedly neglected post. Like you I am drawn to the trinity of ethnography, journalism and storytelling -- genres that overlap more than academic anthropologists are prone to admit.

I believe there was a moment when the fact/fiction pair crystalized, having been confused before. It was around 1840 when a powerful case began to be made for the natural sciences to be separated from the humanities. The word scientist was coined at this time. The turn towards an inductive scientific method based on objective facts was opposed vigorously by Edgar Allen Poe through his invention of the detective story and the practice of hoaxes which were two sides of the same coin. Whereas Alan Sokal employed a hoax to expose the intellectual pretensions of non-scientists, Poe wanted to expose the scientists for their pretension of being purely factual. He asserted the superiority of fiction over fact-grubbing, noting facetiously that God makes things up, so fiction has to be a higher calling than merely describing what is.

I mention this since it has seemed to me for a while now that the fact/fiction opposition may be breaking up once more. This is reinforced by the Scientific American article dug up by Huon Wardle for the Forum which questions whether theoretical physics is softer than anthropology. I do believe that the case you have highlighted here reinforces the idea that fact and fiction are dialectally entailed in each other. It also throws light on the current controversy about the use or non-use of the word "science" by the AAA.



Comment by Ken Routon on March 11, 2011 at 2:38pm

John, thanks for the comments. I only meant that Taussig’s book, when I read it over a decade ago, was the first piece of critical writing on the subject to leave a lasting impression (i.e., my first “significant” encounter). And when I said facts were commodities I wasn’t being metaphorical. To me, it doesn’t make much sense to compare facts to hard-edged things in this context. They’re more like odors, whiffs of mostly fowl-smelling things blowing in from a distance. 

Comment by John McCreery on March 11, 2011 at 4:03am

Ken, can it really be true that, 


My first significant encounter with the problem of treating “facts” as unadulterated pieces of information entirely separable from their representation comes from one of my favorite ethnographies?


Could it be, instead, that reading Taussig brought into focus the peculiar and precarious relationship of facts to both journalism and ethnography, pursuits that are largely dependent on eye-witness testimony for the factual basis of their conclusions? I ask because it is hard to believe that the frequent obscurity and slipperiness of facts is news to anyone who has read a murder mystery, watched courtroom or medical dramas on TV, or follows contemporary debates on creationism, climate change or differences between men and women. 


One additional random thought: Facts are not commodities. Gemstones are a better metaphor. Some are like industrial diamonds, good only for industrial processes. A few are gem-quality stones whose final value depends on how they are cut and polished. The scholar's task is like that of the jeweler: not just cutting, polishing and mounting, but first being able to detect discolorations and other flaws and identify obvious fakes. 




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