Where Truth Lies. Digital Culture and Documentary Media after 9/11
Author: Kris Fallon
Publisher: University of California Press, USA
There is a very particular sense of fatigue associated with the claim that the media is to blame for the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It has been repeated so often that it is almost not worth considering what lies within it. It is worth noting, in turn, that people outside the media universe rarely make the claim.
Those who make a living from producing, publishing and analyzing media and media content tend to overestimate the media’s power and shamelessly overlook the (other) life experiences that shape people’s political consciousness.
In that sense, Kris Fallon’s new book, Where Truth Lies. Digital Culture and Documentary Media after 9/11 falls into this tradition of decoupled understanding of how the world works and why.
«In 2016, when real estate speculator heir and reality TV character Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected president of the United States, it was the media’s fault», Fallon opens his narrative. That phrase honestly had me close to cancelling this review. I imagined 200+ pages of complete boredom and restless irritation.
Luckily – probably because of the book’s inciting title – I hung on to a few more pages and quickly realized this was something else. Fallon did not convince me that Trump is to blame for the media (or, must we assume it would have been the media’s merit if he had not been elected?). But he did convince me that a critical analysis of today’s media landscape in light of the historical development of documentary practice and digital technologies is both timely and politically relevant.
Events that included revelations of secret prisons, torture, human rights abuses, more than one hundred thousand civilian casualties, two overseas wars…
The orbital half of the dark forces
The empirical starting point for Fallon’s mapping of the fierce struggle for truth that characterizes today’s media is the almost twenty–year–old statement by the US government that terrorism can only be fought if the good fighters move ‘onto the path of the dark forces.’»
In the light of hindsight, Fallon writes, then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks after the #9/11 attacks about being forced to «stay on the shadowy sides of the intelligence world» heralded a «long period of deep political unrest and conflict over events that still had not occurred. Events that included revelations of secret prisons, torture, human rights abuses, more than one hundred thousand civilian casualties, two overseas wars and an unprecedented undermining of civil rights for the average domestic citizen.»
Fallon does not analyze the course of these events, nor their political-economic context, but instead how documentary practices and digital technology play together with these events. He does so with insight, historical overview, and a cool sense of description.
«The dissolution of legal and political boundaries between entities and activities that had hitherto been separated – such as between civilians and rebels, or between military intervention and nation-building – produced a state of general confusion», Fallon claims. In doing so, he convincingly analyzes the connection between the veiling political strategies launched in the «real world» and the use of dissemination tools that are expected to explain how things really go.
Digital storytelling tools
New hybrid media forms and documentary aesthetics were already underway in the decades leading up to 9/11. Media workers began experimenting with these methods to uncover what was perceived as deliberately obscured truths more than ever. Truths that the military, states, economic elites, intelligence services, institutions, political parties and other powerful agents made more and more effort to hide. This situation also boosted a boom in what Fallon calls «conspiracy media».
According to Fallon, classic documentaries are basically about «collecting information about the world, organizing this data in a socially meaningful form, and then presenting this information to the public».
But for an increasingly polarized public, under a government that had openly acknowledged that it was operating in the shadows, it became increasingly difficult to assess what was credible and increasingly less obvious, and which narratives were socially meaningful and for whom.
Fallon puts new media and digital storytelling tools in a historical analysis of documentary practice context – as it has been used by both those in power and the opposition – from the 1930s to the present day. Through readings of concrete documentary works and their reception, the book elegantly examines the complex question of Where Truth Lies, and yes, the title’s ambiguity is obviously intentional.
Truths hidden by the military, states, economic elites, intelligence services, institutions, political parties and other powerful agents.
One of the documentary filmmakers whose works and methods are examined in the historical and political context in which they work (or do not) is Errol Morris. Films like The Thin Blue Line (on a reversed conviction for murder) and The Fog of War (about former US Secretary of Defense and World Bank President Robert McNamara#). Morris is widely recognized as one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of his time. He has long been a pioneer in using new digital storytelling tools and their critical potential.
Coincidentally, around the release of Where Truth Lies, Morris himself fell victim to the polarized political situation that runs like an undercurrent through Fallon’s analysis. With his latest film American Dharma, which goes on a critical discovery inside Steve Bannon’s mental universe, the director has been accused of promoting an alt-right ideologue.
«I probably would not have seen that coming», Morris said. «It could be because I’m an idiot. Possibly.»
Where Truth Lies suggests more convincing explanations, not on the American Dharma reception specifically, but on how the struggle for truth – and thus for documentarism – has become so brutal and how creating social meaning has become such a difficult and unpredictable exercise.