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Warm Facts

I’ve started reading Tony Judt’s “Postwar” and am impressed with his use of statistics in the first chapter. It reminds me of Harper’s Index with its cumulative power except that Judt embeds the statistics in a narrative and has a strong narrative persona and point of view.

Though the writing of history has changed a great deal in recent years—like all nonfiction, it’s much less omniscient—I wasn’t surprised to learn that Judt is British. He has a point of view and, as the diplomats say, he’s transparent about it.

I lived in Britain for a decade and worked as a journalist there. Though by reputation, it’s a more reticent culture, it is, in fact, a more open society in many respects. My observations and opinions, as an American outsider, were valued and sought. I learned to express them courageously. The producers and editors I worked with all had a strong point of view. It’s not that they worked deductively from a hypothesis, but that they interpreted and contextualized the facts. I was always told that it’s not enough to say something happened; we have to report on the meaning and importance of what happened.

Any facts we choose to include in a story are, by definition, skewed to our own perception and point of view. There’s no other way to frame a story because we are writing it. It’s much more honest—and the writing is better—if we disclaim our point of view in some way. Judt does this with the intensity of the phraseology he uses and his word choices. He’s a fine writer.

When I returned to the US, I had to shift my reporting into a strange, anodyne neutrality. It’s a lie, it doesn’t exist. The pressures of a market driven broadcast and print media creates this unreality. Personally, I think it’s a great danger in a democracy where it’s essential to remain informed and have informed opinions. The internet is an antidote and, though corroboration is a problem there, and anyone can sound off in a blog, there are also many responsible sites and online magazines.

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