When I first saw the 1996 movie Up Close and Personal, I recall that it annoyed me because it claimed that the essence of good journalism is telling stories.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Tally Atwater – the glossy version of the gritty and tragic life story of newswoman Jessica Savitch – gives this very dramatic speech where she says, “What we in the news business can never forget is that we are only as good as the stories we tell.”
Novelists tell stories, but aren’t journalists supposed to convey facts? A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Often, it conveys a moral. I had naively always assumed that a journalist must first get the facts right: what happened, how, where, and so on. But the films of Michael Moore and a bit of neuroscience provides evidence for another point-of-view.
Documentary filmmakers like Moore get to skirt the “just the facts, ma’am” approach, because, although most documentaries document events (hence, their name), they are also films, and therefore need a dramatic arc. Documentaries that have specific intents and goals in mind can edge closer to propaganda. And if, like my Spot-on colleague Matthew Holt, your thoughts immediately turn to Moore’s new film, then you’re on the right track.
Moore’s Sicko is intended to rouse Americans about the healthcare crisis and hopefully reform the current system. He does in this film what he has done in earlier works and creates a dramatic arc. We meet Americans who have been screwed over by the healthcare system. We see people in other countries have it better. We learn that even prisoners at Guantanamo Bay get better health treatment than most Americans. And so, Moore bundles up some 9/11 workers with health problems and heads off to Cuba for treatment. Gitmo ignores him, but they receive treatment at a Cuban hospital.
It sounds cheesy and irresponsible, but in the film, it works wonderfully. But even some of Moore’s fans cringe and wonder why he has to rely on emotional appeals in addressing political issues. But there’s a logic to this approach when it comes to movies, particularly one that seeks, as Moore does, to motivate people to action. This was illustrated when the public radio program Radio Lab looked at the issue of morality last year, to try to figure out how we decide between right and wrong. Josh Greene, philosopher and neuroscientist, used brain imaging data to figure out that we make rational decisions in one part of our brains and emotional decisions in another part. So, for example, if you ask people whether they would push a button to send a runaway train down an alternate track – killing one person, but saving five – then they make that decision with one part of their brains and decide to kill the one. But if asked to push someone off a bridge to stop the train – killing one person, but saving five – they use a different part of the brain to arrive at a different conclusion: it’s wrong to kill.
If Michael Moore makes a healthcare documentary full of statistics and facts – in other words, based on logic and rationality – then the audience watches with one part of the brain and arrives at certain conclusions. But if he makes a documentary based on personal stories and human tragedy, then the audience watches with a different part of the brain and makes very personal and emotional decisions. You can argue whether ends justify means, but this is a rationale to tell stories instead of relaying factual events.
Thinking about it further, I realized that some mainstream journalists have awful nerve to criticize Moore for his storytelling technique. “He’s not one of us,” they might say, “because he can’t just stick to the facts. He has a personal point-of-view; he relies on anecdotes; he fudges the facts.” And mainstream journalists don’t?
In recent weeks, some media critics have noticed that John Edwards’ $400 haircut keeps being referenced over and over (see Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler or Jamison Foser at Media Matters) to attack Edwards’ emphasis on poverty. A fact – Edwards got expensive haircuts – is turned into a story – the rich man is a hypocrite. In contrast, Glenn Greenwald noted at Salon that a similar story about Mitt Romney spending $300 on makeup hasn’t had the same traction as the infamous Edwards haircut, a story which is actually a sequel to the expensive haircut President Bill Clinton is said to have received on the runway at Los Angeles International Airport.
One could rightfully argue that all these trivia-based hit pieces are stupid, but the reason why some take off and others fall flat is whether they fit into preconceived notions (Heck, we know Romney’s a hypocrite and a pretty boy…). But it’s also useful to look and see what effect the storyteller is trying to achieve. What these news reports on Edwards seem to do is argue that it’s mighty ironic for a man to claim to fight for the poor, while getting incredibly expensive haircuts – a stance that only works if you ignore the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy all addressed poverty while being simultaneously personally wealthy.
You could say it’s unfair to let Moore off the hook for playing fast and loose with the facts and I’m not arguing for inaccuracy in filmmaking or saying that documentaries should always provide an emotional narrative. But it’s interesting that Moore uses his technique in the pursuit of addressing a genuine social problem, while the haircut fairytale seems to exist largely to make fun of trying to fight for the poor. Or as noted television journalist Tally Atwater once put it, “What we in the news business can never forget is that we are only as good as the stories we tell.”