A lot of fake things happened this year. A girl twerked upside down, wiped out, and caught on fire. This was not real. A reality TV show producer and a woman were insufferable to one another on a plane ride. This was also not real. A robot spat out gloriously poetic musings on life, love, and horses. Totally fake.
Over at Nieman Lab, as part of its excellent series predicting what journalism will look like in 2014, Metafilter creator Matt Haughey wrote that this trend will only deepen in 2014, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Haughey channels an older phrase, “Even when it’s fake, it’s real,” elaborating to say, “These strings of stories are offering increasingly complex outcomes amid layers of truth and untruth that only get uncovered in bits over time. In the end, they spark important conversations about important topics, and those conversations don’t feel lessened if and when an original story gets undermined.”
I hear him, to a point. I love unraveling the mysteries of the Internet. There’s a bit of legend-building that exists around any meme, meaning there are always half-truths that surface even when the strange Internet thing in question is, for all intents and purposes, “real.” I get it, there’s a spectrum to these things. My editor Nathan Pensky puts it more eloquently, that it’s “a news media parallel to the argument for dialectic, that in opposing viewpoints, some truth greater than the sum of its parts emerges.”
But as journalists, should we really be going after “Truth” in the vague, poetic Keatsian sense of the word? Or should we be going after “facts”? This is the trap Mike Daisey fell into when it was revealed that his “Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” monologue, which was packaged as journalism by This American Life, was full of fabrications. Daisey wanted to capture the Truth. Facts were beside the point.
What about the hard right-winger whose idea of Truth is that God controls the weather so we should do nothing to combat climate change? What about literal Truthers on the left who, despite having no facts to back it up, can weave a pseudo-compelling narrative that 9/11 was an inside job?
Theater, poetry, “Breaking Bad,” these are great sources of Truth. But if journalists can’t be trusted to report the facts, then what’s the point? Capturing the sensations and feelings and half-truths about weird Internet detritus might make for decent entertainment. As long as it “wins the Internet” I suppose. But without some sense of factual basis, what’s to stop viewers from abandoning ship for more entertaining fare like the Daily Show? Sorry, journalists: You may think you’re as funny as Jon Stewart but you’re not.
Haughey’s post is a reaction to those who have let these hoaxes harden them. “Defaulting to distrust,” he calls it.
But I don’t want to distrust. I want to believe that genuinely weird, surprising, and delightful things still exist. And that they aren’t just the creations of reality TV show writers, performance artists, and corporations.
That we’re still debating the value of “realness” where news is concerned betrays our desire for the real. If our entertainment can be measured according to how effectively we’re being fooled, that’s a measure of the importance of facts and our ability to judge them, whatever Haughey says.
Illustration by Brad Jonas