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‘It’s hard to combat unreality when it is all around you’

Investigative journalist Leah McGrath Goodman will speak in Dover about how we’re now in a world where truth is questioned and what that means for reporting and understanding the facts around us

This interview is adapted from the July 26 broadcast of Green Mountain Mornings on WINQ-AM (formerly WKVT) and is published with the station’s permission. Host Olga Peters was for many years the senior reporter at The Commons and has recently returned to write part-time. The show airs daily from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. To hear audio of the show on demand, visit the show’s Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/wkvtradio.

BRATTLEBORO—I have to make a disclaimer. Just so everyone knows, in full disclosure, Leah McGrath Goodman is one of my best friends. (In this interview on the air, she said I would “just have to make it a very hard-hitting interview,” so I started thinking of the bad questions.)

Goodman is going to be at the Dover Free Library’s annual dessert fundraiser — its largest event of the year — on Thursday, Aug. 2 at 7 p.m. to talk about her work as an investigative journalist — and, shall we say, life in a “post-truth world”? (I hate that phrase. In the interview, Goodman suggested “coerced alternate reality.”

The talk is part of a dessert fundraiser for the library. So since we are talking about truth here, I should urge you to go and support your local library. Our local libraries and our librarians are the defenders of information and free information.

* * *

Olga Peters: Are we in 1984 yet?

Leah McGrath Goodman: We are in a very Orwellian place. When you read the book, you just thought that if you were in an Orwellian place, then you could easily combat it, right? But the worst thing that they don’t say in 1984, but is obvious and true, is that it’s hard to combat unreality when it is all around you.

O.P.: It’s the water in your fishbowl.

L.M.G.: Yes. As a journalist, you have to combat that on the front lines everyday.

O.P.: Now, Leah, will people be able to bring questions to your presentation at the Dover Free Library? Are you hoping that people are going to throw the tough questions at you?

L.M.G.: I like questions! I’ll be trying to make sure that I take people on a walk through some of the different things I’ve written about and how facts can get hotly debated despite them being facts. And, really, the process of sorting through that.

O.P.: There are so many news outlets out there right now. There are so many places to get information. Why should we really care if we live in a true reality? Is emotional reality good enough?

L.M.G.: I think there is a place for emotional reality because we all have feelings. But I think when it comes to journalism, I am alarmed by — and what I see less of is — the press agreeing on a specific set of facts.

When we have seen many different scandals throughout history, really basic facts were often agreed upon. We would still need to verify some information, or uncover hidden or classified information. That’s different.

As journalists, you can kind of group almost everything into two boxes: what we know and can verify, and what we don’t know and can’t verify, right? And then anything else sort of falls in between. We’re pretty sure we can verify it but we just haven’t yet. And journalists are constantly working on that in-between place.

I think that for a lot of us, facts need to be very well established. We witness events, you hear recordings, you see television. We see something with our eyes or we hear it with our ears.

But a few days later, now we will see a debate about whether or not those events really happened or they really didn’t happen or maybe they were misunderstood or somebody is changing the narrative now to make it into something you’re certain it wasn’t.

I think a lot of us journalists are becoming increasingly alarmed that things that were absolutely established become suddenly a little bit mushy a few days later and then we have to go back and argue about it.

O.P.: It’s such a good point. As someone who started her writing career in the world of fiction and the world of narrative filmmaking, I have noticed that the filmmaking techniques and a lot of the language that used to be preserved for fiction and screenplays is now being used in a number of news media.

For example, the word “narrative” — I used to hear that only around fiction. And there are camera movements I see on broadcast news now that really used to only be in dramatic filmmaking. And now they’re being used in the news to play on our emotions.

L.M.G.: I think you’re right. And it is something that can be very subtle — you know, maybe someone like you who has been trained in this area can make a really clear distinction between camera work from 10 years, 20 years, ago and now, where everything’s like a Mariah Carey video.

I think more about the information and how we’re using it, how we’re presenting it. There’s a meme that’s been going around online and it says at the top, “This is Journalism 101: You’re not supposed to interview one person who says the sky is blue and the other one who says it’s not. You’re supposed to look out the window and find out and then report that.” It’s not about just being a stenographer.

Anyone can sit there and write down what the guy said and then they can write down what the other guy said that was the exact opposite. That’s not a story. That’s you being lazy and not finding out what actual truth is.

One of my favorite journalists, Christiane Amanpour, talked about when she was covering genocide in the Balkans. She said, “No, you don’t interview the people doing the genocide and say, ‘Oh, they have feelings, too.’”

She said, she didn’t at the time think that if she had covered Hitler she would say, “Oh, Mr. Hitler had a point.” There a point where you as a journalist have to say that what you’re witnessing is outrageous and terrible. You don’t have to report it necessarily from your viewpoint, but if you can objectively see that something has really broken down, you can cover it. You can write about what has happened, what you’re observing, and you can also interview people.

If there is a need for that opposite point of view because facts have not all come in, you always want to put that in, because you want to be fair. I always say that even if somebody has what is probably an unreasonable view in my mind, I still want to know what their best reason is for why they feel the way they do.

I’m not interested in giving them a garbled quote to make them look awkward or like they’re tripping over themselves, and I really just disrespect when journalists take somebody they clearly disagree with and put the worst photo of them in the paper and give them the worst quote with the worst grammar errors. Because I want to know the closest version to truth and the facts that we can get. It’s our job to get as close as possible.

O.P.: What are some of the things that people can expect if they come to your presentation?

L.M.G.: I’ll be bringing forth some of the more radioactive things that I had to write about. When I was in New York writing for The Wall Street Journal, I wrote a book that is an oral history of the global oil market and the worlds of the traders who built it and traded in it. This market determines things like our oil prices, our gasoline prices, our propane prices — anything related to fossil fuels. They were really controlling that market. And when I say “controlling,” I don’t use that word lightly. I wrote all about how this happened, how these people got this control, and I got a lot of threats. No one had ever really gone into the belly of that beast before.

I’ll talk about a book I’m currently writing about a tax shelter off the coast of France, where really bad crimes have flourished, particularly against children. That has been another sort of black hole where every time facts are uncovered there’s a huge fight: “Is that a fact, or is that not true?”

And probably my most controversial cover story for Newsweek, when I was writing my cover stories throughout the last several years — I’m still a contributor there — was the Bitcoin story.

And so, I’ll probably be taking a walk through some of these, but I also will be trying to engage in what we’re going through now as a country and also what people in the world are going through now with this debating of truth, debating of facts, and debating of things that we thought were established and how that happens.

In the end, the questions will be: What is the anatomy of taking facts and actually turning them into soup? And how we can guard against that?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #470 (Wednesday, August 1, 2018). This story appeared on page B3.

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