Can Journalism Ever Be Art?

Ryzard Kapuściński

In the last few years, various writers, both living and dead, have been exposed for writing fiction when their audiences expected truth. Jonah Lehrer was discovered to have falsely appropriated quotes to Bob Dylan, Mike Daisey was outed by Ira Glass for entirely fabricating the horrifying working conditions at Foxconn factories in China, the late Ryzard Kapuściński has been critiqued for inventing and embellishing events in a spirit far closer to magical realism than journalism, and, most notoriously, writer James Frey was eviscerated on live TV by Oprah Winfrey for fabricating details of his memoir A Million Little Pieces. For these authors, and for many others, the most common defense of their untruth is that their work is a hybrid genre, a blending of journalism and art that exists in a space somewhere between the two. When confronted, Daisey argued that his fabrication, as a stage performance, was acceptable “in the world of the theater.” In a piece for Slate in 2009, Meghan O’Rourke pondered whether, regarding the work of Kapuściński, an explicit genre is needed that lies “between fact and fiction.” In his defense of his memoir now included in the published text of the book, James Frey argues, “memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard.” As these authors and their defenders argue, there is an artistic genre, by definition hazy, that ostensibly functions to represent reality as it happened but that may distort historical events in the interest of producing good art.

The question that these defenses beg is “Does such a genre actually exist?” Is there such a genre of art that is as fully artistic as it is journalistic? Can a work that purports to tell a true story ever take artistic license with fact and still be held as valuable?

In so far as the public is concerned, the answer to all of these questions seems to be “not really.”

One reason for this stems from the public’s tendency to unequivocally cast work as either art or journalism, submitting it entirely to the rules of that genre.

In a critique of Kapuściński in Slate titled “The lies of Ryzard Kapuściński, or if you prefer, the ‘magical-realism’ of the now departed master,” Jack Shafer argues that Kapuściński’s work must be read solely as journalism, and poor journalism at that, for its embellishments on the truth. Shafer argues that to regard Kapuściński as belonging to a hybrid genre between art and truth would diminish the work of other journalists who produced good work in the name of truth. As he argues, “Nice try, but no journalism.”

In truth, there are very few works that comfortably ride the line between art and journalism. There are of course countless works of art that could be classed this way, though there are very few that succeed when taking significant artistic liberties, at least in so far as hard truth is concerned. The documentary theater work of Ana Devere Smith and Moises Kaufman are examples of journalistic art that rigorously aspire to journalistic notions of truth without taking liberties with regard to history.

There are some works, however, that have been able to exist comfortably at the nexus. The wildly celebrated HBO series The Wire is an example of real events from Baltimore history, in some cases using the real life subjects in supporting roles, re-worked into a show that was both true to the spirit of history and a great work of art. Further back, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1967) is a similar re-working of the Algerian War of Independence, though told through invented fictional characters as well as historical ones. Like The Wire, Pontecorvo’s film functions as a both a historical record, of a sort, casting many people involved in the war of independence as characters and shooting in the very streets of Algiers’ casbah where the actual events had occurred just a few years before, and as an artistic work.

Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t whether such a genre exists, but rather why it doesn’t it formally exist. Why is it then that some authors are publicly excoriated for bending the truth when others are not? Fundamentally, it seems to be a matter of framing. It is clear that the way a work of art is framed, as truth or fiction, is deeply determinative of how a work will interpreted. Works that are “true,” whether journalism, film, or memoir, regardless of content, will always attest to the real and the possible. Jon Krakauer‘s Into The Wild, whether interpreted as a cautionary tale or a paean to non-conformity, is always accompanied by the assertions: “this happened” and “this is possible.” When we analyze a work that is true, these two assertions must always accompany our reading, regardless of additional artistic or thematic content. Oppositely, while a work of fiction can certainly exhibit events that are real or possible

More importantly, though, how a work is framed will largely determine an audience’s experience of the work. Given the chord struck by films like Argo, Seabiscuit, and memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love, Wild, and, indeed, A Million Little Pieces, it’s evident that people love incredible stories that also happen to be true. People want to believe. When authors present an audience with a story of a triumph or a near miss, while also framing the story as true, audiences get a kick out of believing that such an event is possible. Such belief also contributes to the entertainment of a work and its overall enjoyment, offering some idea of why some readers, like Oprah, were so upset with James Frey.

Considering that volume of artistic work that blends reality and fiction, it is clear that an implicit genre does exists between the two poles, though it seems that what prevents this body of work from emerging as a legitimate genre is the parsimony of the public. We are unwilling to grant artists license to blend fact and fiction because we expect so much from “true” works. On the one hand, we expect to be entertained by compelling narratives, while on the other we want to hold up non-fictional works as affirming of the true and the possible and we want to invest our emotions in them.

In a sense, this can be understood as a reasonable reticence. It is as yet unclear what criteria we as audience might use to evaluate a work that is “kind of” or “mostly” true when the standards we have for interpreting works of fiction and non-fiction respectively are so delimited. It seems that the two won’t ever comfortably exist until we reconcile two mutually exclusive tendencies: our desire to use non-fiction to affirm our belief in the world, and our desire to be entertained.