Friday, September 16, 2011

Journalistic Hyperbole

Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run is a fun, fast paced, dramatic story about a lost tribe of super runners. It’s incredibly entertaining and thought provoking, but has been criticized by many people for including too much “gonzo” journalism, for letting exuberance overwhelm the facts, as seen by Ed Ayres detailed criticism, summarized as “The first [of the book’s] two stories are somewhat misguided and misinformed, though entertaining.  The third is well researched and, I think, profoundly important. I don't know if I have ever before read a book that is so wrong and so right between the same two covers.”

Peter Richmond’s article on Ryan Fitzpatrick is similar. An interesting portrait of a thoughtful man, it nonetheless includes such pronouncements such at this: “It kind of makes you wonder if, in a graphic-novel alternate universe, Fitzpatrick has been predestined to visit failing American post-industrial towns until one of them recognizes his mission as Savior and anoints him.” The Goose’s Roost – a thinking man’s Buffalo Sports blog – takes him down by pointing out the ambiguities behind the hyperbole.

These two writings shine a light on an interesting question: What exactly should be the relationship between telling an entertaining story and being faithful to the facts? I don’t have the answer, but like everything, the answer falls somewhere in between. On one side, you have someone that tells a story with no regard for the truth, aiming for nothing more that entertainment. On the other hand, you have someone who strives for the most accurate representation of reality as possible with no regard for storytelling. (This along with incomprehensible jargon is why so many academic papers are so unreadably bad – they have no concern with telling a story.)

Personally, I find the prevalence of hyperbole these days to be mildly disturbing, simply because we negate the power of words if we don’t use them for their intended purpose. For example: it’s entertaining to use the word “epic” as a synonym for “great” (as in “That was an epic game, man!”) but what it means is that you now don’t have a word to use when you want to say something was truly epic (by definition “heroic; majestic; impressively great”) I’m as guilty as the next person of doing this, BTW, and I’m not sure it’s going to go away anytime soon .

As for representing nothing but the truth in text, well, the truth is always more complex than any narrative you can create. The mere tactic of picking and choosing facts and presenting them in a certain order by definition leaves things out and thus doesn't paint a complete picture of a thing. It’s like the old story about the only accurate map having a 1:1 scale that includes everything you could ever want – like something out of a Borges tale. So if you accept this fact, why not make your story entertaining? Why not stay as accurate to the truth as you can, but have some fun along the way?

And so in the end, I fall on the side of the entertainers, with the caveat that a little bit of hyperbole can go a long way. What do you think?

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