Two years ago the US presidential elections were in full swing. The primaries finally over and election day fewer than six months away, Obama and McCain were the last men standing and news correspondents from around the world descended upon America to cover that fascinating race with that unlikely – given his African American background – contender. At the time I was working for a Dutch TV programme, schlepping around New York and Chicago, dragging supporters, super-delegates and ‘men in the street’ in front of the camera, asking them to share their opinions, hopes and fears with our viewers back home.
The most fascinating thing to witness was the transformation people invariably underwent once the camera started running: from a normal guy walking down the street, into ‘The Man in the Street’. Suddenly, someone who two minutes before had been talking normally would take on that specific diction that people have only when being interviewed; suddenly, also, they would sound as though they were quoting from an interview with another Joe Schmoe in that morning’s newspaper.
At such moments I frequently thought of Joris Luyendijk’s book People Like Us (2006; the English edition was published just last year). Luyendijk is a Dutch journalist who, from 1998 to 2003, worked as a correspondent in the Middle East, and People Like Us recounts his experiences during that period.
The correspondent’s task, as Luyendijk perceives it, is to faithfully represent reality – and they invariably fail at this task. Sometimes because they doesn’t really know what’s going on, but have to ‘go live’ anyway; sometimes because the authorities of the dictatorial regimes from which they report supply them only with false information; often because news stories have to be short and simple, while reality is complex and messy. People Like Us therefore ends up being a book on how ‘the media’ manipulate reality; they do not offer the truth, but only part of it; not reality, but a filtered, biased, and altered version of it.
Watching people recompose themselves in front of a camera, I was reminded of the truth of Luyendijk’s conclusion: viewers back home would never get to see Obama’s supporters as they really were; instead, they got to see staged and performed versions.
Yet I also realised something else: namely, that Luyendijk had been wrong about the correspondent’s task. For as we interviewed people, simplified their viewpoints, and made them seamless parts of a simple news story, we did precisely what we had to do. The correspondent’s job is to take reality, deform and mangle and straightjacket it, and spit out the result to viewers back home. This is so not because of ignorance or time limits or political pressures; but because journalists are storytellers, no more and no less.
And what is a story, if not the manipulation, alteration, and re-presentation of the truth?