Fictionalizing the truth

Culture | For relativists, the line between reality and fantasy is easily ignored

Issue: "Foster or faster?," June 6, 1998

If, as contemporary thinkers and educators are saying, truth is something we "construct," rather than discover from the outside, there is really no difference between reality and imaginative fiction. No wonder we are having trouble telling the difference.

The makers of Titanic spared no expense at recreating the period costumes, ambience, and engineering details of the sinking. But the filmmakers didn't bother to authenticate the human drama.

The movie portrayed the first mate of the Titanic, William Murdoch-a real person-as a cowardly murderer who took bribes so that wealthy socialites could buy a spot on the lifeboats, putting the women and children last.

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Lt. Murdoch's descendants and his hometown of Dalbeattie in Scotland were properly outraged. The fact is, the first mate performed heroically in the crisis, saving dozens of lives and selflessly going down with his ship. Twentieth Century Fox responded with an apology and, out of its multi-billion dollar box office receipts, donated $8,000 to the town to build a memorial to the brave seaman.

This was not the only historical howler now engrained into the popular consciousness by James Cameron, the movie's creator. Eyewitness accounts of the disaster record that the first-class passengers actually faced the prospect of imminent death with courage, self-denial, and noblesse oblige. Especially singled out was the dashing millionaire industrialist Col. John Jacob Astor, who, in a real-life love story, was on his honeymoon. Col. Astor led his bride to the lifeboat, then slipped away before she realized it, to join the men on the deck waiting to go down. Col. Astor rallied the other gentlemen, including fellow robber baron Benjamin Guggenheim, to help the crew enforce the "women and children first" rule.

Aside from one of the owners of the steamship line, J.B. Ismay, jumping into a lifeboat full of women-an act of cowardice that prompted a congressional investigation-most of the panic and the every-man-for-himself mentality seems to have occurred among the lower-class passengers.

Although the true facts would have made a gripping tale, the movie reflected instead the Marxist theme of class conflict, whereby the capitalists are decadent, selfish, and repressed, in contrast to the noble, life-affirming proletariat.

Not only is entertainment masquerading as truth, truth is masquerading as entertainment. TV news has formed the habit of covering real events as if they were fantasy action thrillers.

Three Los Angeles television stations broke into their children's programming for live coverage of a standoff between police and the distraught and unstable Daniel V. Jones. As the minicams were running, Mr. Jones went to his pickup, took out a shotgun, and killed himself. Television showed it all. Children tuning into their cartoon shows saw live coverage of the suicide.

Responding to outraged parents and other viewers, the stations apologized. But a few weeks later, other media went even further in getting into the middle of a hostage crisis and interfering with police action. In Tampa, Fla., a gunman, Hank Earl Carr, apparently shot and killed his girlfriend's 4-year-old son. He then killed two police officers, hijacked a truck, killed a highway patrol officer, and in the course of a gun battle dashed into a gas station, taking the clerk hostage.

As police surrounded the station, hostage negotiators could not get through on the telephone. The line was busy. Mr. Carr was talking to reporters. The St. Petersburg Times and radio station WFLA were both conducting exclusive interviews with the killer. After four hours, Mr. Carr released his hostage and, as he promised the reporters, killed himself. The radio interview was played over and over on the airwaves and on TV.

Mr. Carr had his 15 minutes of fame as a shoot-'em-up star, and the public didn't have to pay for a movie ticket. But for the families of the dead, these weren't special effects.

Then there's The New Republic, once the flagship publication of American liberalism, which had to fire associate editor Stephen Glass for making up people and events and passing them off as news.

In a recent issue, Mr. Glass wrote a feature story titled "Hack Heaven" about a 15-year-old computer hacker named Ian Restil who was said to have broken into the database of a company called Jukt Micronics (see WORLD, May 23). After he posted every employee's salary and pictures of naked women on the company's Web page, the company supposedly hired the fictional character as a security consultant.

"I want more money," the teenager is quoted as saying. "I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Man comic number one. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy, and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money!"


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