Sunday, May 25, 2014

"But this is the purest of bullshit"

Mungo Park is writing in his journal about his reception in Segu where he first set European eyes on the Niger River.  He's just shown his notes to Johnson, his African assistant, who's been to England and is quite a remarkable man in his own right.  I'm on page 121 of T.C. Boyle's novel about Park, Water Music.  Johnson looks at Park's notes, which paint a much rosier picture of the events and their reception by the local chief, and responds:

"But this is the purest of bullshit," says Johnson, handing the slip of paper back to the explorer.  " A distortion and a lie.  About the only thing that's accurate is the seven-foot guards.  And the cash."
Mungo rides on in silence, something like a superior smirk tugging at his lip.  He and Johnson have just passed the last sagging hut along the road out of Segu. . .
The explorer twists in his saddle to look back at Johnson. "Exactly,"  he says, folding up the scrap of paper and working it under his hatband. [His journal consists of scraps of paper tucked under his hatband.]  "Can you imagine how unutterably dull it would be if I stuck strictly to bald bare facts - without a hint of embellishment?  The good citizens of London and Edinburgh don't want to read about misery and wretchedness and thirty-seven slaves disembowled, old boy - their lives are grim enough as it is.  No, they want a little glamor, a touch of the exotic and the out-of-the-way.  And what's the harm of giving it to them?"
Johnson weaves along on his ass, parting leaf and stem like a swimmer parting the waves.  He is shaking his head.  "But you're suppose to be an explorer.  The first white man to come in here and tell it like it is.  A myth-breaker, iconoclast, recorder of reality.  If you ain't absolutely rigorous, down to the tiniest detail, you're a sham, and I'm sorry to say it."  Johnson's voice is raised. .  . "A sham," he repeats.  "No better than Herodotus or Descelliers or any of them other armchair heroes that charted out the interior of Africa from behind the four walls of their book-lined studies."
"No Johnson, you're not being fair at all.  I'm giving them facts - of course.  About the geography, the culture, the flora and fauna.  Of course I am.  That's what I'm here for.  But to stick to facts and nothing but - why the English reading public wouldn't stand for it.  They can read Hansard if they want facts.  Or the Times obituaries.  When they read about Africa they want adventure, they want amaze.  They want stories like Bruce and Jobson gave them.  And that's what I intend to give them.  Stories."

This is about history.  It's also about news.  To what extent are both colored by the biases of the reporters?  Or, as in this case, by intentional 'embellishment'?  Why is Park concerned here about what the folks in London and Edinburgh want to hear?  Because  some of them are funding his expedition.

It's a reminder that what is happening with today's media is not new.  From The Free Press:
Too often, mainstream media companies and the think tanks they fund, defend the erosion of quality journalism by arguing: “We’re just giving the people what they want,” or “There is no demand for other kinds of news.” These folks usually describe accountability journalism and public affairs programming as “broccoli journalism,” calling up images of parents force-feeding their children vegetables, just because they are “good for them.”
The Free Press article goes on to say, citing a study of Philadelphia, the media are wrong:
“Simply put, people in Philadelphia are mad at the city’s dailies,” the authors of the report summarized. Citizens complained to the researchers that local coverage is “superficial,” lacking careful follow-up reporting and too often comes “days late.” Many local citizens could point to numerous key issues facing the city that were un- or under-reported. People clearly know what they want and the local commercial media doesn’t seem to be giving it to them.
They go on to cite a PEW study that says basically the same thing.

But Eric May, in a long and interesting piece at his website  traces the US media tilt toward the sensational over the important to a) corporate takeovers of formerly local media and b) the increased competition of cable.  News now had to keep its audience to make money but the audience had a lot more choices. Here's a short snippet:
So the efforts of the smart people at the stations were directed at ways to find and hold the viewers, especially for their one source of local programming revenue, the relatively inexpensive-to-produce news.

Audience research, which has been directed at entertainment program audiences was now focused on news audiences. How much news do you watch? Why do you watch? What stories do you remember? What do you want?

As the data was gathered and analyzed, stations became more and more aware of what viewers wanted. And they watched their own newscasts, and looked at their competitors, and looked at the ratings for both, trying to understand the patterns. What worked (higher ratings) and what didn't? 
What didn’t always show up in the audience research but almost always showed up in the ratings was that people would tune in to watch sensationalism and triviality- blood, murder, sex, cute animal stories- as one news anchor put it “tits, tots, and pets.”  [emphasis added]
I suspect May is closer to the mark.  Our amygdala reacts before our frontal lobe does. But also keep in mind who May is.  Again, from May's own website:
Eric May is an Emmy Award winning media consultant and internationally recognized expert in storytelling technique, visual language and expressing complex ideas clearly.

Eric works with news organizations, scientists and researchers, diplomats and development agencies worldwide helping them build their audiences, raise awareness of their initiatives, and tell their stories better.
He gets paid to tell news folks and others how to sell the stories. 

So, was Park wrong when he said, "The good citizens of London and Edinburgh don't want to read about misery and wretchedness and thirty-seven slaves disembowled"?

Maybe not.  While most of the good citizens he referenced, did indeed lead grim lives, and probably were just as anxious to hear about other people's misery as are people today,  I suspect that  the good citizens he was actually writing for were the educated and wealthy members of the African Association that were funding Park's explorations and didn't want to fund someone who was being so humbled by the locals. (See the opening lines of the book below.)

 TC Boyle is a prolific writer whose prose does not rely on cliches.  For example, Boyle opens the book:  
"At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to al-haj' Ali Ibn Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar.   The year was 1795, George II was dabbling the walls of Windosr Castle with his own spittle, the Notables were botching things in France, Goya was deaf, De Quincey a depraved preadolescent."
[Note:  Park was the Emir's prisoner and wasn't voluntarily exposing himself.]

But Boyle doesn't live in 1795.  He lives in today's world and published this book in 1981.  As much as I like to take insights from history that enlighten today, it works much better if the writing was done at the time of the event.   When present writers highlight an issue in the past, one has to wonder how much that insight was apparent in the historical period and how much was the writer seeing those events with modern eyes.  For example, would an African, even one who'd spent time in England, say, in 1795, "this is the purest of bullshit"?  I don't know. 

By the way, Mungo Park is a real, and well known Scot.  You can read more about Park here.

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