How to Report the Truth in the Age of Trump
Sarah Glidden Sees the Objective in Life's Subjective Details
Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts couldn’t be more timely: a defense of journalism in the form of an extended work of graphic nonfiction, or, in other words, a book that cannot help but blur the lines. “[T]rue objectivity,” Glidden insists in a brief note entitled “About This Book,” “is impossible in narrative journalism (and arguably in any kind of journalism).” Anyone who’s spent time thinking seriously about journalism is aware of the challenges Glidden illuminates. There is the subjectivity of perspective, the selectivity of detail, the reliability of sources, the availability (or scarcity) of outlets willing or able to reckon with and make accessible what George Orwell referred to as “unpleasant facts.” There is the question of when, or whether, to publish, of how to get the information out. To this list, let me add one other item: the unattainability, on both reportorial or existential terms, of what let’s call a “full truth.” Journalists are always scrambling in the dark, building stories by accretion, following one individual to another, parsing the connections, the through-lines. Journalists are always having to decide.
That this is a thankless task goes without saying; just look at the president-elect’s January 11 press conference, in which he refused to take a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, dismissing the network as “fake news” (“Mr. President-elect,” Acosta protested, “that’s not appropriate”) and referred to Buzzfeed as a “failing pile of garbage” after the website posted a 35-page unverified document alleging, among other things, a 2013 pee party with Russian prostitutes. I’m not sure what I think about the Buzzfeed revelations, whether the organization crossed a line by releasing what amount to rumors or whether the post was justified by the fact that its allegations have been an open secret in Washington for months. Either way, it’s a tough time to be a journalist. In April, for the second straight year, Career Cast listed newspaper reporter as the worst job in its annual Job Report; among the reasons, a growth outlook of -9%. Fake news, hot takes, clickbait, the ubiquity of responses pieces and aggregation, not to mention the steady loss of resources… all of it has led to a culture in which we take for granted the failures and fallacies of the profession, even as we suffer the fallout of a post-information world.
This is especially an issue when it comes to political reporting, both domestic and international. Glidden’s book offers a case in point. It is the record of a 2010 reporting trip to Turkey, Syria and Iraq with a small crew of young journalist friends. Glidden is a journalist, too, after a fashion; her intent here is to illustrate how the information gets gathered, how the stories get built. “Mostly,” she admits, “I’m not sure if I’m ready for what I’ve signed up for,” two months in “all the countries we’re supposed to be afraid of”—although this is the whole idea. Glidden’s friends (Alex and another woman named Sarah) belong to a collective called the Seattle Globalist, and report on issues “ignored by the mainstream media.” For the most part, that means a human-level accounting of displaced persons as a way to put a face, or a series of faces, on a crisis that might otherwise remain at arm’s length, and in so doing to provoke our empathy.
Empathy, of course, is the stuff of art, but it’s long been an open question as to whether, or to what extent, it belongs in journalism. On the one hand, there is Walter Lippmann, who argued that reporters should represent a “specialized class” of information gatherers, standing above, or outside, the public. “[T]he old constants of our thinking have become variables,” he wrote in 1922. “Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.” On the other, there is the 19th-century Chicago columnist Finley Peter Dunne, who famously opined, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And yet, in a world of manufactured narratives, in which a press conference with the next president devolves into the bashing of reporters, what choice do we have? If fair and balanced means giving equal time to authoritarian posturing, that’s not journalism, that’s propaganda—which journalists are sworn to stand against. Empathy, then, becomes a necessary tool, not in shaping the news but in defining an approach to stories as essentially human, in the sense that they are about the effect of policy on how people live across the different regions of the globe.
For Glidden, that makes for a complicated set of intentions, in part because what she’s attempting with Rolling Blackouts is both art and journalism. How can it not be, when the stories she shares are both reported and drawn? “There are rules to journalism that are common sense: do not deceive, work independently; minimize harm. But from there, lines start blurring,” she writes. “…I’m beginning to see that so much of the practice of journalism comes down to questions that may be unanswerable.” Glidden is referring to journalistic distance in this passage—a key question for her since she is reporting on her friends. But even more, she is identifying the peculiar conundrum of the graphic journalist, for whom sources can’t help but become subjects and visual interpretation, even framing, is an unavoidable component of the work. Art, after all, is inherently subjective; we draw it as we see it, so to speak.
The implication of Rolling Blackouts is that journalism may require, to be at its most effective, a similar approach. I think of Joe Sacco, who in his 2012 book Journalism argues that “the blessing of an inherently interpretive medium like comics is that it hasn’t allowed me to lock myself within the confines of traditional journalism. […] For good or for ill, the comics medium is adamant, and it has forced me to makes choices. In my view, that is part of its message.” Proximity, in other words, which is the necessary corollary to the distance Glidden is also driven to invoke.
Any committed journalist understands this, that personal engagement, involvement even, is necessary to slip inside a story, although too much gets in the way. “Is it even possible to report on a person’s life without intervening in it?” Glidden wonders. Throughout Rolling Blackouts, we see the question dramatized. There is Sam, detained and deported from the United States: “Without my wife and kids,” he laments, sitting in an empty upstairs room in his home in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, “I am useless.” Or Amin, an Iranian blogger in the Turkish city of Van, who left his country after having been arrested for “publishing books that were not approved by the government.” Now, he waits to be resettled in the United States, while simultaneously regretting his decision to leave. “After the election,” he laments, “there were many people under the same pressures. But they were more courageous and they stayed.” On the way back from their encounter, Glidden tells the other Sarah, “I don’t know how you keep your composure in interviews like that. I had to bite my lip to keep from crying more than once in there.” Much like Amin’s ambivalence, this offers a stunning reminder of the human cost of politics, the emotional, as opposed to the statistical, toll. There are no answers, only questions, and these are difficult and complex for everyone—including the reporters.
Glidden makes this explicit in the person of a third friend: Dan, an Iraq war veteran who strives to appear unaffected by his role that conflict, although of course he is not. “I know,” he protests, “a lot of people got killed in Iraq and I know, it opened up Pandora’s Box, but what does that have to do with me, with my motives? Nothing. That shit was going on and was getting worse and I wanted to stop it.” Still, over the course of two months on the road together, Dan’s façade begins to crack. En route from Iraq to Syria, he confides to Glidden his guilt over a friend left seriously injured by an IED attack: “We drove to the hospital to visit him about four months after it happened …” Dan confides. “It was almost impossible to recognize the guy we had been with for four years. I feel so guilty. He was such a great guy and now he can barely talk. Meanwhile, I get all this stuff. My school alone is worth $40,000 a year. And for what?” The accompanying images, of Glidden and Dan talking in the back seat of a taxi as night darkens the surrounding landscape, only highlights the uneasy intimacy.
Where this leaves us is in the territory of empathy again—albeit of an unexpected, double-sided sort. For all that we’re prepared to relate to the refugees on whom Glidden and her friends are reporting (“No, no, I talk with you, but…” a Syrian woman insists on the very first page of the book, “I not like your government. I not like… EVERYBODY”), our sympathies are perhaps less easily extended to an American who volunteered. At the same time, Dan is an important part of the story also, a figure whose own distance, whose difficulty acknowledging his contradictions, extends to the insulation shared by many of us.
Why do we read a book like Rolling Blackouts? To be brought close, to confront stories we are not seeing, to stare down the human consequence of war. That’s a consequence that cuts both ways, corrupting soldiers and civilians, all of whom, it seems essential to remember, are caught in circumstances beyond their influence. Late in the book, Sarah and Alex get bad news about one of their stories; it has been rejected because it’s “too dark.” Sarah fumes: “There’s no way to write about people living in a prison and not have it be dark! They wouldn’t want to overwhelm their audience with too depressing a story.” And yet, the triumph of Rolling Blackouts is that we get to read the story anyway, regardless of that editorial decision. This is an important payoff, the primacy of story as a strategy to connect us, to introduce and make us feel for real people in real situations, people who, it turns out—how could it be otherwise?—are an awful lot like us.
Partly, that’s the result of Glidden and her friends, who take journalism seriously, as an act of citizenship. Partly, it has to do with those graphics, which can’t help but pull us in. To see Sam in his empty room, or going through his morning routine for the camera, is to feel his loneliness in a visceral way. To witness his memories in images—his marriage, his escape from Iraq with his pregnant wife, his experience at the detention center—is to enter them ourselves. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable… journalism as a form of advocacy. But what does that mean? These are not opinion pieces, after all. No, what Rolling Blackouts offers is series of testimonies, gestures of witness, in which there is no false promise of resolution to the region’s complexities. It is a slice of life, of time, and we read it with the full knowledge of what has happened since: the Syrian civil war, Aleppo, the rise of nationalism and Donald Trump. If we were in trouble then, just think about the trouble we are facing now. Glidden knows all this, or she appears to know all this, or it doesn’t matter anyway. What can a journalist do except report? That is the whole point of the job. “The situation changing doesn’t make what they told us any less important,” Sarah tells Glidden once they are back in the United States. “…I always ask myself: is it better that this story is out there in the world than if it wasn’t. If the answer is yes, then you do it. The best we can hope for is that the story gets passed along. The way the reader uses that story to understand the world is up to them.”