The craft of un­truth has been per­fected

Geist - - Geist - Al­berto Manguel

Re­port­ing Lies

When strife in­vades a land, Lies pile up like sand. —Ger­man proverb, quoted by the his­to­rian Marc Bloch

Our most per­va­sive in­ven­tions are of­ten not what they seem. When the art of writ­ing was in­vented more than five thou­sand years ago, not by po­ets but by ac­coun­tants wish­ing to es­tab­lish how many sheep or goats were bought or sold in a com­mer­cial trans­ac­tion, it was not made ex­plicit (and still isn’t) that the art of read­ing had to be in­vented be­fore­hand, so that the sys­tem of dots and squig­gles meant to con­vey the mes­sage could be de­ci­phered by the reader. Like­wise, it was not ev­i­dent that the power that writ­ing be­stowed on its users, of com­mu­ni­cat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences across space and time, en­tailed as well the power to tell lies.

An early ex­am­ple comes from Sume­ria in the first half of the sec­ond mil­len­nium BCE, when the priests of the Temple of Shamash, in Sip­par, set up a mon­u­ment to com­mem­o­rate the ren­o­va­tion of the temple and in­creased the royal stipend as­signed to it. In­stead of mark­ing it with the cor­rect date, they dated it in the reign of King Man­ish­tushu of Akka­dia (c. 2276−2261 BCE), thereby grant­ing the temple a ven­er­a­ble an­tiq­uity that jus­ti­fied the in­creased stipend. The in­scrip­tion ends with this re­as­sur­ance to the reader: “This not a lie but the strict truth.”

In­nu­mer­able other ex­am­ples, from then to this day, show how the craft of un­truth, in the ap­par­ent re­port­ing of facts, has been per­fected. No doubt oral com­mu­ni­ca­tion is equally prone to ly­ing, but some­how words set down in writ­ing carry a stouter con­vic­tion than those same words spo­ken out loud. As Sa­muel Gold­wyn so elo­quently put it, “An oral con­tract is not worth the pa­per it’s writ­ten on.”

Jour­nal­ists—re­porters, memo­ri­al­ists, his­to­ri­ans—have long known how easy it is to re­port what in re­cent months has come to be known as “al­ter­na­tive facts.” The tech­niques are many, from the me­dieval re­course of “ly­ing with the truth” to the use of selec­tive sources of in­for­ma­tion and eu­phemisms such as “col­lat­eral dam­age.” What­ever we mean by the truth of an event can be dis­torted, coloured or changed en­tirely. When we read a piece of news, we have not so much to sus­pend dis­be­lief as to place be­lief and trust in a cer­tain re­porter or news­pa­per that we deem rep­utable. This trust is all too of­ten mis­placed.

Un­til re­cently, in my vagabond life as a writer, I was fairly naïve about this dan­ger. From time to time, in a re­view or a pro­file, a critic would give in­for­ma­tion about me and my work that was not true, but I shrugged th­ese off as hon­est er­rors or even pri­vate spite. But since I be­came di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Li­brary of Ar­gentina, a year ago, all this changed. The op­po­si­tion news­pa­pers in Ar­gentina—those whose pro­pri­etors op­pose the gov­ern­ment that ap­pointed me—be­gan to pub­lish ar­ti­cles by the li­brary’s exdi­rec­tor and his al­lies ac­cus­ing me of all sort of sins.

It was in­ter­est­ing to see how th­ese at­tacks worked. For in­stance, the first ex­hi­bi­tion we or­ga­nized at the li­brary was one on Jorge Luis Borges, Ar­gentina’s ma­jor writer and di­rec­tor of the li­brary for many years. Be­cause our li­brary has only one (mi­nor) Borges man­u­script, I begged for and bor­rowed a num­ber of oth­ers for the ex­hi­bi­tion, among them the man­u­script of “Pierre Me­nard, Au­thor of Don Quixote,” lent by an Amer­i­can book­seller friend. In or­der to carry the man­u­script with me from New York to Buenos Aires, we had to have it in­sured for half a mil­lion dol­lars, and the in­sur­ance com­pany de­manded, quite nat­u­rally, that armed guards ac­com­pany me from the air­port to the li­brary, where we could store it in the safe. Next day, Página 12 (the main op­po­si­tion pa­per) pub­lished a short re­port say­ing that the new di­rec­tor of the li­brary had

ar­rived with armed guards and that “never since the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship” had such a show of weapons been seen in the Na­tional Li­brary. There was no men­tion of the Borges man­u­script and no jour­nal­ist took the time to in­ves­ti­gate the un­usual “fact.” Borges has a story, “Emma Zunz,” about a woman who com­mits mur­der to avenge her fa­ther and then gives a false ac­count of the events to ex­cul­pate her­self. “Ev­ery­one be­lieved her,” Borges con­cludes, “be­cause es­sen­tially her story was true. False were only a few facts, the times and one or two names.”

I did not, how­ever, ex­pect to see this sort of re­port­ing in Canada, “the true North strong and free.” And not in a pa­per so highly re­garded as the Globe and Mail.

This is what hap­pened. The Globe and Mail jour­nal­ist Stephanie Nolen, re­cently ap­pointed to the South Amer­ica bureau, asked to interview me in Buenos Aires. Her re­port­ing from Africa had been widely ad­mired and I de­cided it might be safe to an­swer her ques­tions. The re­sult­ing piece was any­thing but ob­jec­tive. Ms. Nolen cer­tainly has a right to her tastes and po­lit­i­cal opin­ions, but I be­lieve that as a jour­nal­ist, she has an obli­ga­tion to check her in­for­ma­tion care­fully. The “al­ter­na­tive facts” she in­cludes in her piece are many. She writes that the Li­brary “can­celled most cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties,” some­thing that can be eas­ily dis­proved by vis­it­ing the Na­tional Li­brary’s site (which is ap­pear­ing in a new de­sign): Any­one tak­ing a few sec­onds to check will see that we have numer­ous on­go­ing ex­hi­bi­tions on a wide range of sub­jects, as well as a great num­ber of lec­tures, work­shops, con­certs and films—many more than dur­ing the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion. Just in the first weeks of April, we in­vited Javier Cer­cas, Dany La­fer­rière, Alessan­dro Bar­icco and Nél­ida Piñon to have pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions at the li­brary, which they car­ried out to packed au­di­to­ri­ums. The li­brary did stop host­ing reg­u­lar meetings of Carta Abierta, a group of fer­vent Kirch­ner­ista in­tel­lec­tu­als who met to dis­cuss gov­ern­ment poli­cies and ex­cluded all op­pos­ing voices. But the li­brary cer­tainly did not favour an anti-left­ist in­tel­li­gentsia. Among the present and forth­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tions are one ded­i­cated to the in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and fic­tion writer Rodolfo Walsh, mur­dered by the Junta that ruled the coun­try in the seven­ties; an­other cel­e­brat­ing the an­niver­sary of Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez´s One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude; an­other on the read­ings of Che; an­other on the an­niver­sary of the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion and its in­flu­ence on the de­vel­op­ment of so­cial­ist ideas in Ar­gentina.

The Na­tional Li­brary of Ar­gentina is in­creas­ing its con­tacts with other li­braries in the re­gion and around the world to bet­ter share our re­sources and to learn from one an­other. How­ever, no men­tion is made in Ms. Nolen’s piece about the many agree­ments signed for joint events and shared dig­i­tal ma­te­rial with, among many oth­ers, the Na­tional Li­brary of Spain, Na­tional Li­brary of Colom­bia, the Bri­tish Li­brary, the Li­brary of Congress in Wash­ing­ton, DC, and, most im­por­tant for me per­son­ally, the Na­tional Li­brary of Canada, with whose help we are set­ting up a large ex­hi­bi­tion in June for Canada’s 150th an­niver­sary. Ms. Nolen’s de­pic­tion of the Li­brary does a dis­ser­vice to the en­tire li­brary com­mu­nity that has wel­comed our ef­forts for in­creased co­op­er­a­tion.

Dis­tor­tion of facts is also ap­par­ent in her piece. When Ms. Nolen says that I “heaped pub­lic crit­i­cism on the pre­vi­ous li­brary ad­min­is­tra­tion, which was run by a widely re­spected left­ist in­tel­lec­tual,” she does not say that I had for al­most a year care­fully pre­served si­lence, as much as I could, about the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion. I ex­pressed reser­va­tions in a short piece I wrote for the Lit­er­ary Re­view and (most un­for­tu­nately) in the interview with Ms. Nolen. It’s not at all the case that the pre­vi­ous di­rec­tor, Ho­ra­cio González, main­tained what Ms. Nolen de­scribes as “arch ci­vil­ity.” In fact he of­ten slan­dered the new li­brary ad­min­is­tra­tion and me in the press, and also to other li­brary di­rec­tors, pub­lish­ing a let­ter signed by many aca­demic friends of his, and writ­ers such as J. M. Coet­zee, to whom he lied in or­der to ob­tain his sig­na­ture. The de­tails of this af­fair were in­ves­ti­gated by the French jour­nal­ist Philippe Ries and can be read (in French) on the web­site of the Me­di­a­part Agency:­di­a­­word=manguel.

Ms. Nolen judges that I “won few friends here” (Ar­gentina). In fact, there has been a great deal of pos­i­tive re­port­ing in the Ar­gen­tinian press, and Ms. Nolen ap­pears not to have no­ticed the dozens of in­tel­lec­tu­als from both po­lit­i­cal camps who have ac­cepted my in­vi­ta­tions to con­trib­ute to our work. She says that I am “viewed as naïve at best, vain and am­bi­tious at worst, and with lit­tle to show for him­self after his first stint in the li­brary kitchen.” By whom, may I ask? Cer­tainly (with the ex­cep­tions of Beatriz Sarlo and Martín Ko­han, who have a right to their opin­ion) not by in­tel­lec­tu­als I re­spect. I could have given Ms. Nolen names, had she only asked. And as to hav­ing “lit­tle to show,” Ms. Nolen might have asked to see the dossier on our ac­tiv­i­ties at the li­brary over the last year, or spo­ken to any of the 836 peo­ple work­ing in the li­brary to­day (a few may be crit­i­cal, but the ma­jor­ity is cer­tainly not) about what we have been do­ing in this in­sti­tu­tion for the past eleven months. This last I find as­ton­ish­ing: to re­search an ar­ti­cle on the Na­tional Li­brary of Ar­gentina and not interview any­one on the staff ex­cept the present di­rec­tor, and then to priv­i­lege the nar­ra­tive of the exdi­rec­tor and his co­horts. Yes, I made a mis­take when I spoke of nepo­tism and said that Mr. Gon­za­lez had em­ployed his wife and daugh­ter at the li­brary: as Mr. Gon­za­lez him­self points out, he had em­ployed his daugh­ter and sis­ter. I apol­o­gize for this er­ror.

Ms. Nolen is a jour­nal­ist of long­stand­ing and high rep­u­ta­tion, and I was sur­prised that in this piece she was not more thor­ough in ver­i­fy­ing her facts. Hav­ing sym­pa­thy for Mr. Gon­za­lez and his poli­cies is one thing; ac­cept­ing his words un­chal­lenged in a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of vi­cious an­tag­o­nism is quite an­other. It is sim­ply un­eth­i­cal jour­nal­ism.

Un­der the new ad­min­is­tra­tion, the li­brary staff has been work­ing tire­lessly to com­plete the cat­a­logue and fa­cil­i­tate ac­cess to our her­itage through dig­i­ti­za­tion and ex­hibits, and I hope that more ob­jec­tive Cana­di­ans may have an op­por­tu­nity to visit it, to use its won­der­ful re­sources and read­ing rooms, and at­tend its ex­cit­ing slate of pro­grams. How­ever, Ms. Nolen re­port­ing on Ar­gentina risks skew­ing Cana­di­ans’ un­der­stand­ing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the Li­brary and the coun­try, to the detri­ment of ev­ery­one.

Jour­nal­ism suf­fers from what psy­chol­o­gists call the “per­se­ver­ance of mem­ory,” by which some­thing learned through a con­vinc­ing nar­ra­tive is al­most im­pos­si­ble to erad­i­cate even if a moun­tain of facts dis­prov­ing the story ap­pears. Carl Gus­tav Jung wrote that the world is psy­chi­cally in­fected by two groups of peo­ple: politi­cians and jour­nal­ists. I never imag­ined I would be wit­ness to such vivid proof of his judg­ment.

Al­berto Manguel is the award-win­ning au­thor of hun­dreds of works, most re­cently (in English) Cu­rios­ity, All Men Are Liars and A His­tory of Read­ing. He lives in Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina, where he serves as Di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Li­brary. Read more of his work at al­ and

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