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“But Is it True?” A review of “People’s Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics,” By Fred Inglis, and “The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo

LA Times Book Review, June 23, 2002

Anyone who fears that 25 years of postmodern relativism has pickled the brains of today’s youth has never taught introductory journalism. On the first day of class when I greet my students (whether graduate or undergraduate), the only thing I can be sure they believe in is the absolute distinction between “facts” and “values”–the latter having a corrupting effect on the former, which is the sole terrain of “objective” journalism. “It’s all relative” isn’t a phrase I hear very often.

Journalism has never been a particularly philosophical discipline. The relative absence of theoretical curiosity has spared it the endless methodological squabbles that are the very stuff of, say, sociology. But this absence has similarly inhibited it from formulating the fundamental moral and political questions that should be posed periodically of any human endeavor. What is journalism for? To whom is it responsible? It is a happy coincidence that Fred Inglis’ “People’s Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics” and an updated edition of Phillip Knightley’s classic history of war journalism, “The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo” appear this month. Both pose versions of the above questions and outline competing arguments for the proper relationship between journalism and politics. Inglis is optimistic that journalism might have a positive cumulative influence on politics. Knightley is thoroughly pessimistic about the media’s efficacy in the post- Vietnam era. “The lies, manipulation, news management, propaganda, spin, distortion, omission, slant and gullibility of the coverage of this war,” he writes of Kosovo, ” … has brought war correspondents to crisis point in their short history.”

A professor of cultural studies at England’s University of Sheffield, Inglis is the author of a biography of Raymond Williams (one of his discipline’s founders), an impressionistic history of the Cold War, “The Cruel Peace,” and “Cultural Studies,” one of the most intelligent accounts of the discipline’s rise in Britain.

His sensibility is philosophical and anthropological, his method biographical and anecdotal. They come together in his argument that “[t]he myths of journalism, like those of any other trade, live in the historical biographies which, taken together, compose the ensemble of narratives constituting a culture.”

Inglis’ argument that narrative is the currency of human interaction resonates with the work of thinkers such as anthropologist Clifford Geertz, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and, most recently, psychologist Jerome Bruner, whose “Making Stories” underscores narrative’s role in organizing every aspect of knowledge and life.

For these scholars, culture is an ensemble of symbolic narratives, which we argue about to create our traditions and forge our character. Inglis dubs journalists “the people’s storytellers,” arguing that “journalism is the everyday domestic conversation of a society as it first devises, disputes and circulates those stories– as it tries out their grip.” Journalism is thoroughly social, providing “a kind of cognitive and sociable furniture upon which readers can temporarily sit themselves down in terms of history, geography, politics and passion.”

“People’s Witness” is particularly timely because journalists today are experiencing a crisis of narrative. There is a sense that the message has overwhelmed the medium. “The breakup of former Yugoslavia, the attempted secessions of parts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the inexplicable civil wars of central Africa, above all the hideous destruction of New York’s World Trade Center, all offer recent examples of political news which journalists struggled helplessly to explain; they could only describe what they saw.” Inglis and Knightley would argue over whether political journalism has been more diminished by profiteering media monopolies or onerous government censorship, but they’d agree that the trade is in dire need of reform.

Though neither author offers anything resembling a concrete “program” for rehabilitating political journalism, Inglis’ cultural studies background infuses “People’s Witness” with a subtlety that is missing from “The First Casualty.” An award-winning investigative journalist who wrote for London’s Sunday Times for 20 years, Knightley writes the history of the war correspondent as a story of steady decline–in freedom, in objectivity, in balance. The three new chapters on the Falkland Islands, Desert Storm and Kosovo are so infected with the author’s extreme anti-American political views (I shudder to think of his opinion of the current conflict) that he attacks the media’s (admittedly dismal) performance as a proxy for government policy he dislikes. Nearly every chapter–World War I, World War II, Korea–concludes with a lament. “It’s humiliating to look back at what we wrote during the war,” Knightley quotes a Reuters reporter at the end of World War II. “… It wasn’t good journalism. It wasn’t journalism at all.”

Really? All of it? Although no Pollyanna, Inglis resists Knightley’s relentless pessimism. In fact, “People’s Witness” may be read as a respectful critique of “The First Casualty” as Inglis points out the “square simplicity of … Knightley’s approach to journalistic ethics,” and the exaggerated attention Inglis thinks he gives to “the earnestness and uncontested objectivity which every journalist should bring to the task of telling the truth.”

For Inglis, “journalism is a branch of literature as history … and will only be truthful so far as it is well written.” “Truthfulness,” rather than objectivity is the goal of political journalism. Those he admires–Martha Gellhorn, George Orwell, Harold Evans, Jonathan Schell, I.F. Stone, David Halberstam, Ryszard Kapuscinski and a long list of others–”match the magic of their gift for words against the vast possibility of what may be made from those little fictions, the facts. When the writers win, the match is a draw. This is called balance,” he writes.

Whereas “objectivity” is an accolade drawn from the world of science, truthfulness is a thoroughly human virtue. Whether chronicling the tradition of the British radical press or of American muckraking (“it set a seal on the constitution of journalism”), Inglis detects a resilient, if embattled, continuum. In “People’s Witness,” he fashions an alternative tradition of political journalism as he reorders “a galaxy of starring and not- so-starring, more dimly significant names in a new historical constellation.”

But whose account is more accurate? Is political journalism a tradition of stubborn, occasionally successful, truth-tellers, as Inglis would have it? Or an endless parade of the easily duped, as Knightley suggests?

Sadly, it may not matter. “The military and the American and British governments realised from their polls that the public knew that the news from the Gulf was being censored–and almost eighty per cent thought that this was a good idea,” writes Knightley. “In fact, nearly sixty per cent thought that the authorities should exert more control over the coverage of the war.” If truth is the first casualty of war, it seems that the public’s desire for it runs a close second.