The Book Club

Truth Is Often Unedifying

Dear Jim,

Thanks so much for a really stimulating discussion. It’s helped to clarify my thinking about legal and journalistic narratives more than I could have imagined when we began. I have to say that I’m surprised about the note of Springsteen–and epistemological uncertainty–on which you close. After reading Malcolm’s book and Spake’s article, you feel you are still “dancing in the dark” about whether Sheila McGough is guilty or innocent. And you prefer Amanda’s Spake’s narrative to Janet Malcom’s, because Malcolm gives us an extended argument for Sheila’s innocence, whereas Spake’s article conveys doubt about Sheila’s innocence, presenting both sides of the story and leaving the ultimate truth for readers to decide.

Our dialogue about the relationship between truth and narrative, of course, isn’t taking place in a vacuum. One of the most powerful movements in law and journalism today involves the uses of storytelling; and in its starkest form, the storytelling movement is a radical assault on the possibility of agreement about objective truth. Drawing on strains in literary theory, some of champions of storytelling insist that we are all prisoners of our racial and sexual and economic perspectives. Rather than trying to converge, through deliberation, on a single version of reality, these storytellers argue, jurors, plaintiffs, defendants, and even journalists have an obligation, instead, to create their own narratives and counter-narratives of empowerment, even if the narratives aren’t literally true.

This nihilistic perspectivism is what Malcolm’s bracingly old-fashion vision of narrative refuses to accept. Malcolm is deeply sensitive to the problem of perspectivism: Right after confessing her momentary doubts about Sheila’s truthfulness, in the sentences that you quote, Malcolm has a wonderfully candid passage about the force with which we cling to our opinions once we have made up our minds. “As nothing will now shake my faith in Sheila, so nothing will convince Hulkower that he was wrong to prosecute her,” she writes. The difficulty of suspending our preconceptions, Malcolm acknowledges, poses a powerful challenge to the fiction of neutrality on which the jury system is constructed. “Every juror listens to the testimony through the filter of his perceptions and as a (conscious or unconscious) rooter for one side or the other.” If jurors can be swayed, Malcom writes, it isn’t by the tendentious storytelling of trial attorneys. Instead, it is “by other jurors during deliberations–by the working of group psychology, the power of strong personalities over weak ones, the pull of life outside the jury room.”

In law, in other words, Malcolm is idealistic about the possibility that jurors can transcend their biases through democratic deliberation. And in journalism, Malcolm insists on the duty of the intelligent observer to evaluate the competing narratives and clashing perspectives of all the parties (the housecoats again), to reach an nuanced judgment about what really happened, and then to construct a narrative that converts what she calls “aimless truth-seeking” into “purposive storytelling” – communicating the shapeless truth in the only way that truth can be communicated: selectively. (“The law is the guardian of the ideal of unmediated truth, truth stripped bare of the ornament of narration,” as Malcolm puts it, but the law of language “proscribes unregulated truth-telling and requires that our utterances tell coherent, and thus never merely true, stories.”)

It’s not really fair, as you suggest, to set up a contest between Amanda Spake’s short article and Janet Malcom’s longer book, but you nevertheless prefer Spake’s open-mindedness and doubt, which you equate with “honesty,” to Malcolm’s confidence in supressing her doubts and offering unequivocal judgments. After considering the evidence, Malcolm makes up her own mind, and then tries to persuade the reader of the truth of Sheila’s innocence; Spake–writing within the constraints of the purportedly “objective” Washington Post magazine–presents both sides of the story without taking sides, suggests that the real truth is unknowable, and let’s readers make up their own minds.

But I’m surprised, as I say, about your preference for Spake’s nonjudgmental “objectivity” over Malcolm’s moral and factual judgments. I had understood the public journalism movement, which you endorse at length in Breaking the News, to take the opposite position. “One of public journalism’s basic claims is that journalists should stop kidding themselves about their ability to remain detached from and objective about public life,” you wrote. Criticizing Len Downie, the executive editor of the Washington Post, for his sanctimonious “claim of objectivity,” you insisted that journalists should allow themselves to be biased in favor of providing information that is useful for “democratic self-government,” spending less time predicting future events and more time edifying the citizenry by “understanding and explaining what had already occurred.”

There are aspects of the public journalism movement, I have to confess, that give me the willies: in particular, the notion that journalists should cast themselves as earnestly tendentious purveyors of useful information that will improve democratic discourse. Malcolm teaches us that truth is often unedifying and unideological in its irrational specificity: Is anyone more likely to vote Democratic or Republican after reading the strange tale of Sheila McGough? But the one part of the public journalism platform that I thought I could swallow was its insistence on critical intelligence: All those smart young editors at the Washington Monthly can plough through the policy debates that send me to straight to Starbucks, and tell me what to think about the earned income tax credit. But critical intelligence requires journalists to make judgments, and readers to accept that not all perspectives are equally valid. The brilliant and fair-minded Janet Malcolm has spent more time evaluating the evidence in Sheila McGough’s case than anyone on earth, aside from McGough herself. If you’re still not willing to trust Malcolm to make a judgment about McGough’s innocence, I wonder what kind of evidence would persuade you. At some point, the pose of neutrality becomes indistinguishable from radical perspectivism, and which isn’t exactly a recipe for the kind of warm and cuddly “democratic deliberation” that public journalism exists to promote.

The question of Sheila McGough’s guilt or innocence isn’t a debater’s game. The woman spent two-and a half years in jail for crimes that Malcolm argues persuasively she didn’t commit. McGough’s reflections on prosecutorial excess, which we’ve ended our dialogue without discussing, are among the most moving passages in the book: “It’s an intolerable hell, in a civic sense, to live in a society where because some people don’t like you and want to see you ruined, you can be destroyed when you make a misstep, when you do something that is not unlawful but merely imprudent–even if they have to use perjury to do so,” Sheila told Malcolm. After reading Malcolm and Spake, you and I have considered more relevant evidence in the case of Sheila McGough than even the jurors were allowed to consider. If, at this point, you still find the prosecutors more persuasive than Malcolm, don’t you have an obligation to explain why you’re persuaded of McGough’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt?

Our dialogue has me all fired me up; and one reason, perhaps, is that it’s reinforced my respect for Malcolm’s insight that narrative journalism has a power to convey the truth that law can’t being to approximate. Yesterday, I found myself interviewing a real defense lawyer (someone–unlike me–who has actually set foot in a courtroom) and I mentioned Malcolm’s thesis that legal narratives are more likely to obscure truth than to reveal it. “Absolutely right,” my defense lawyer responded. “The only chance you have to convey the truth in a trial is in the opening statement, when you can try to construct a convincing narrative. After that, it’s all a question of poking holes in the false stories invented by the prosecution.” There’s something morally inspiring about Malcolm’s decision to tell small stories on behalf of the unjustly accused. The fact that she’s taught all of us so much, in the process, about the hazards of legal narrative, and the power of journalistic narrative, is only icing on the cake.

Thanks again, Jim, and best regards, Jeff