Tuesday, July 21, 2009

TRUTH IN THE NEWS?

AN ESSAY

Last week, I read an interesting little article in the New York Daily News. See L.I. dad slain uptown, N.Y. Daily News, July 17, 2009. Newspaper reporting interests me not so much for what the writers disclose, but rather for what they do not disclose. Ironically, newspapers ask readers to accept their reports as “truth,” even though close inspection reveals myriad unanswered questions in every article. Even the smallest, most insignificant news stories often conceal luscious “subtexts.” In the past, I rarely thought about subtext. Now that I’ve gained some experience in life, I see that subtext is far more important than printed words. In the end, I never fully trust a news report. I simply use it as a basis from which to draw my own conclusions, applying my own experience and memory to the “facts” presented. In short, I do not rely on the news for “truth.”

So how exactly does “subtext” work? And how do news outlets warp perceptions? Let’s examine L.I. dad slain uptown. It’s a short article. The reporters tell us that a “motivational speaker from Valley Stream, Long Island” named Jeffrey Locker, 52, drove into Manhattan last Wednesday afternoon. He was white. We know this because the News includes a picture next to the headline. We then learn that two young “neighborhood people” in East Harlem (a largely black and Hispanic neighborhood) saw Locker walking into a Deli on Second Avenue at around 3 A.M. Immediately thereafter, they saw him exit the Deli carrying a bottle of water and “some Trojan condoms.” One witness told the reporters that he looked “cool, relaxed.” Two hours later, the same “young people” saw Locker in the driver’s seat of his 2007 Dodge Magnum. On closer inspection, they saw that his hands were tied behind him and there was a cord around his neck. He was dead. According to the “police report,” he had been “strangled and stabbed.”

Upon reading these “facts,” I made my own conclusions. Here was an affluent white man with a successful career as a “motivational speaker.” He lived in the suburbs with his wife and three children. So what could possibly draw him to East Harlem at 3 A.M., park his station wagon on the street, then buy condoms and water? The News does not speculate. But is it not obvious? It is a well-known urban truism that affluent white men often drive into “bad neighborhoods” for drugs and sex. They patronize prostitutes. They buy crack cocaine. They pay for all the “wild things” they cannot get in their “respectable neighborhoods.” They indulge. Then they get on the parkway and head back to their wives and “respectable lives.” Their wives inevitably ask: “Why are you so late?” To which comes the familiar reply: “Oh, I got held over at work.” Why else would this man have been East Harlem? And why else would he have bought condoms? To make water balloons?

You might ask how I know this. My answer: I’ve seen it happen. When I lived in Chicago, there was a “skid row” near my apartment a few blocks from some busy nightclubs. These clubs drew the seedy as well as the trendy. Not everyone went to the clubs; in fact, most came simply to “mill around the streets.” Some preyed on drunk kids staggering home. Women donned high heels and hot pants to attract “business.” And then there was a cadre of wig-wearing black transvestites who flagged down cars and hopped into passenger seats. Most of these cars were “suburban:” station wagons, family-edition SUVs, sports cars. The drivers were all white. They were suburban men who came into the city for “exciting hookups” thinking no one back home would ever know. In short, I know from experience that white men often visit cities in order to get “exciting sex” that they never get at home during their “respectable lives.”

I could not ignore experience when reading about Jeffrey Locker. Nor could I ignore my cynical assumption that suburban white men do not go to poor black neighborhoods for saintly purposes. Perhaps the News did not explicitly mention why Locker was in East Harlem at 3 A.M., but expected readers to make their own conclusions. That may be so. But the report contained some other “facts” that cut against this interpretation. These “facts” try to paint Locker as an “innocent victim,” not someone who knowingly put himself in a compromising position. For example, the article quotes Locker’s wife: “He was going into the city and coming home. He was supposed to be coming home…He was supposed to come home. He wasn’t there by choice.” See L.I. dad slain uptown, N.Y. Daily News, second column, July 17, 2009. It also quotes Locker’s mother-in-law: “He probably trusted someone…He was a very trusting person. That’s probably how it happened. You could sell him the Brooklyn bridge.” Id. Finally, it quotes a neighbor who “often took bike rides with Locker:” “He was a nice, really great guy…He was a really wonderful father.” Id. at third column.

Was the News mocking these people? Or was it genuinely trying to suggest that Jeffrey Locker was a “great father” who was not in East Harlem “by choice,” but rather because he was a “trusting person?” True, these people knew Locker from his “respectable life” in Valley Stream. They likely had no idea that he had secret sexual desires, or at least refused to acknowledge them. But they are the only people quoted. They did not even quote a neutral police source that might have shed some objective light on the reasons why a suburban white male was alone in a “bad neighborhood” at 3 A.M. on a weeknight.

If the News expects its readers to think that Jeffrey Locker was completely innocent and that some “evil minority person” took advantage of him because he was “too trusting,” then it is both racist and na├»ve. Jeffrey Locker was in the city because he wanted to patronize some prostitutes in East Harlem. He would not have bought condoms if sex were not his goal. He thought he would park his car, buy some condoms at the local bodega, invite some hookers into the car and do what he came to do. But he was playing a dangerous game. He was in a risky position by choice. “Reasonable people” do not go to “high-crime” areas late at night, let alone park expensive cars there. Apparently someone saw him as a mark and attacked him. We cannot know exactly why it happened, but it is not very surprising. It was a crime of opportunity. And it simply defies belief to suggest that someone “seduced” Jeffrey Locker. Did someone “entice him” on his way home to Long Island, convince him to drive all the way uptown, park his car in a “bad neighborhood,” then kill him? That kind of thing just doesn’t happen. Moreover, the unbiased eyewitness statements contradict that scenario. According to the “neighborhood people” who saw him, Locker was “cool” and “relaxed” as he walked from a Deli carrying condoms. That does not sound like some overly trusting, misled soul to me.

In sum, this was a white suburban man who was unsatisfied with his boring sexual life at home, so he went into the city for some fast, anonymous sex with black and Hispanic prostitutes. This was a man with secrets. He was leading a double life. To his neighbor, he was a “really nice guy” and “a great father” who “rode bikes.” But the “neighborhood people” saw his dark side. Who knows how many times he had gone to East Harlem in the past? All this was clear to me when I read the article. I saw a sexually frustrated white middle-aged suburban man using lower-income city dwellers to play out fantasies that he could not indulge in his “respectable life.” It is not complicated. It may be embarrassing and pathetic, but not complicated.

Yet the article reported none of these things. To fully grasp what happened in Jeffrey Locker’s case, I had to apply my own experience and analysis. I could not rely solely on the information in the report. Still, newspapers claim to present “unbiased fact” so that we learn the “truth” about “what happened” in particular events. Newspapers report on “matters of public concern.” Murders concern the public. Nonetheless, the article about Jeffrey Locker does not remotely report the “truth.” No one will ever know the “truth” except Jeffrey Locker and the person who killed him in his car. A few witnesses saw Locker two hours before he died. Their sensory recollections provide us some insight about his motivations and why he was in East Harlem. But they know nothing about his final moments.

Despite the News' best efforts—and every reporting company like it—we can never really grasp the “truth” about events we do not perceive. At best, we can interpret what “may have happened” based upon our own experience, memory, intuition, impressions and emotions. When we do that, we do not actually perceive “what happened,” nor do we come any closer to the “truth” as an absolute matter. Rather, we create truth in our own minds. We hear recollections. We read details. We digest reports. These things interact with our own experience to create something we believe. We see events in our mind’s eye even if we never saw them with our real eyes. We think these mental images are “truth.” In fact, they are nothing more than interpretations based on our own experience. To that extent, truth is entirely subjective. And because it depends on experience, no two people will ever precisely agree on what is true. After all, we all draw on unique experiences to guide our interpretations.

At best, we can agree on certain “indisputable details” when analyzing events. Nothing can replace actual sense. But our society demands “truth” about events, even when no one was there to observe them. Our news media answers this demand. In so doing, it assumes a central role in our consciousness. If we cannot be present to experience every event that concerns us as a society, at least we can receive some information upon which to make our own conclusions. Still, how many people really draw their own conclusions from news reporting? After all, as the Locker case shows, news reporters have the power to selectively publish certain details about past events. Those details channel interpretation. Not everyone has the same life experience to tease out the subtleties concealed in a story. In fact, news stories lure the reader into feeling that he is reading “the pure truth” about a past event. But this is delusional. The mere fact that a newspaper describes an event does not make it true. Rather, the fact that a newspaper describes an event should make the reader even more suspicious about “what actually happened.”

I do not rely on any news media for “truth.” But I do not completely discount it, either. After all, news outlets perform an essential role in disseminating details about events. Without them, we would have no information at all about “things that happen.” Beyond that, however, it is up to me to sort out what “actually happened” based upon my own life experience. It is not easy; interpretation never is. Yet if we simply credit everything we hear in the news, we lend ourselves to deception far more than “truth.” After all, we humans have very limited sensory range. Our senses provide the best pathway to “truth” about the external world. Unfortunately, we can use them to grasp a comparatively minuscule proportion of all the things that happen during our lifetimes. For everything else, we depend on language, second-hand reports, stories, memories, distortions, recollections, biased impressions and legend. In all these cases, “we weren’t there” to perceive the event reported. Nor can we really say whether it “really happened.” We can choose simply to believe it did—or did not. And even then, we see something in our mind’s eye that might be totally different than what “actually happened.”

Is there any way to sift through language, fragmented details, memory and bias to find “truth?” Is it a hopeless endeavor? Or worse, do we just reveal our own individual biases when we try to “create truth?”

1 comment:

Cassie Bishop said...

you've posed a good question there.... it seem to me that all of our interpretations of the interplay of words n action that we encounter in life are relative to each of our past experiences. Clearly the impressions we form and react to are tainted by a conflict or rhyme and reason, a tainted kind of view of the world as we know it---with so many distinct variables in the equation, (for those of us who have yet to submit to the power of the Big Brother or abide by the rules thereof...)...