Where Truth Lies: Digital Culture and Documentary Media after 9/11
There is a very particular tiredness connected to the claim that the media were to blame for the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It has been repeated as a self-evident fact so often that it is barely worth considering the meaning of such a claim anymore.
What is worth noting is that the claim is rarely, if ever, put forward by people outside of the media universe. People who make a living from producing, publishing or analysing media and media content tend to grossly overrate their power and blatantly overlook the life experiences that shape ordinary people’s political minds.
In a sense, Kris Fallon’s new book Where Truth Lies: Digital Culture and Documentary Media after 9/11 falls within this tradition of detached understanding of how the world works and why: «In 2016, when real-estate heir and reality television figure Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected president of the United States, media were to blame», is how Fallon opens his account. Honestly, I almost canceled my scheduled review right there. I predicted 200+ pages of utter boredom and restless irritation.
Luckily – probably motivated by the catchy title of the book – I hung on for a few more pages and soon realised that this was indeed something else. Fallon did not persuade me that media were to blame for the election of Trump – or, we must assume, that media would have been to thank had he not been elected. But he did persuade me that a critical analysis of the current media landscape in light of the historical development of documentary practices and digital technologies is both timely and politically relevant.
The empirical point of departure for Fallon’s venture into the vicious struggle over truth that marks contemporary media landscapes is the American government’s announcement that terrorism could only be fought if the good guys went over to «the dark side».
In hindsight, Fallon writes, the then vice president Dick Cheney’s remarks after the 9/11 attack in 2001 about having to «spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world» foretold, as Fallon tells us, a «long period of deep political turmoil and conflict over events yet to come, events that included revelations of secret prisons, torture, human rights abuses, over a hundred thousand civilian casualties, two wars abroad, and an unprecedented erosion of civil liberties for average citizens at home.»
Documentary film has met with an increasingly polarised public.
Fallon analyses how documentary practices and digital technologies interacted with these events, and he does so with insight, historical overview and a cool sense of description: «The blurring of legal and political lines … produced a state of generalized confusion», Fallon claims. He convincingly demonstrates the relation between obfuscating political strategies implemented in «the real world» and the mediating tools that those grasped for.
New hybridised forms of media and documentary aesthetics were already underway in the decades before 9/11. Media workers began experimenting with these methods to uncover what was more than ever perceived to be hidden truths, truths that military, states, economic elites, intelligence agencies, institutions, political parties, and other powerful agents were going to still greater lengths to conceal. This also gave rise to what Fallon describes as a «conspiracy media».
Fallon writes that documentary film has met with an increasingly polarised public. Under a government that had openly admitted to be venturing into the shadows, it became still more difficult to filter what to believe, and still less obvious what was socially meaningful and to whom.
Fallon contextualises the new forms of media and digital narration with a historical analysis of documentary practices. Through readings of specific documentary works and oeuvres, and the reception of them, the book elegantly traverses the complex question of Where Truth Lies, and yes, the pun of the title is of course intended.
A critical analysis of the current media landscape is both timely and politically relevant.
One of these documentary directors is Errol Morris. With films such as The Thin Blue Line (about a revoked murder conviction) and The Fog of War (about former U.S. Secretary of Defense and President of the World Bank, Robert McNamara), Morris has harvested broad acclaim as one of the greatest documentarists of his time and has been among the pioneers embracing the critical potential of new digital narration tools.
However, coincidentally, the publication of Where Truth Lies coincided with Morris himself falling victim to the polarised political situation that undercuts Fallon’s analysis. With Morris’ latest film American Dharma,that interrogates the ideological universe of Steve Bannon, the director has come under fire for promoting an alt-right ideologue. «I certainly did not anticipate that», Morris has said. «That may be because I’m an idiot. Possibly.»
Where Truth Lies suggests more convincing explanations – not of this incident specifically, but of how documentary media became such a contested battlefield, and how the creation of social meaning became such a chaotic enterprise.