The newest crop of award-winning films from Hollywood, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo, are all based on true stories. The key word here is “based.” It seems that film-makers have no trouble inventing scenes, creating dialog, and inserting information that is completely made up if, in their opinion, it makes a better story. The rationale? Movie-goers “expect” an exciting chase scene in Argo or a Navy Seal raid on Osama Bin Laden’s home to be noisy even if it never happened. Historians are worried because so many people are learning history from the movies. Will the story from the movie’s point of view become the myth that supplants the careful scholarship and meticulous digging that drives the best historians to get it right? The good news is that these transgressions are being noticed. But we authors who contribute to this blog, who craft nonfiction for children, may be held to the highest standards around. We’re not allowed to make anything up. Period. Maybe we’re the last group on the planet to be held to such high standards. Anna’s recent post on Just the Facts shows how hard we work to make sure we’re accurate.
The erosion of the truth seems to be touching journalism as well. One previously absolutely inviolate journalistic standard was that every fact must be verified by at least three independent sources. It’s hard for a reader to check on the accuracy of many stories because journalists can keep some of their sources secret. So one outcome is that people wind up reading and tuning in to the media they agree with. The biased medium becomes the arbiter of what it wants its audience to believe, cherry-picking from the many conflicting “facts” being touted in public that support different sides of critical issues. It’s no wonder that the “echo chamber” of Fox News [Un]fair and [Un]balanced skewed version of the news kept them in a bubble oblivious to the possibility that Obama would be elected, even after the election results were called by other news services. Many pundits dissected why Fox News got it wrong but the consensus seems to be that they had problems believing the inconvenient truth of independent polls so their own slanted views became their own truth. I googled the words “journalism erosion of standards” and up came a slew of posts with many different examples about the extent of misinformation foisted on the public. There was so much disagreement between these posts that I’m now confused about the truth on a variety of issues. But all the articles seem to agree that many news organizations play fast and loose with the truth in the interest of ratings, readership, political and social bias, and the bottom line. Propaganda is alive and well in the good old USA.
What happens when misinformation is embedded in a compellingly told story that has a lot of truth to it? What should our response be when it is uncovered? Here’s a thorny problem from the film Lincoln: It seems there were two invented Connecticut “nays” against the 13th amendment in the voting scene in the movie thus casting the Nutmeg State incorrectly on the wrong side of history. My initial reaction was: where were the fact checkers? This is the kind of error that is so easy to correct. Were the film-makers being lazy or sloppy? The Connecticut congressman, Joe Courtney, called out the error in an open letter to director Steven Spielberg. In response, Tony Kushner, the screenwriter admitted that it was no accident. He had made the changes deliberately. Kushner argues that the facts were changed to serve the larger story: “These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn't determined until the end of the vote. The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell. In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is.” In other words, he used artistic license to shorten the voting scene in the film from the actual historical voting time in the interest of a dramatic effect. You can read the arguments here. So it wasn't laziness or sloppiness. I think he has a point.
Dramas like Lincoln and Argo create tremendous interest in history. When kids encounter a compelling story or an amazing fact they want to know if it is true. The proper answer is “Mostly.” But a curious kid now wants to know what’s true and what isn't. Aha! A teachable moment! What an opportunity! Telling details (small things that catch one’s attention) can add to the credibility of a work if true or, if incorrect, indicate that the work was not vetted for accuracy and perhaps shouldn't be trusted. If only the interested person knew for sure which were which!
Maybe this is an opportunity for us. Perhaps it takes authors who write history for children to create white papers on these films. They could explain what is true and where truth has been manipulated. They could ask questions like, can you think of another way to meet the requirements of an historical drama without changing the facts? Are there any fabrications that are unacceptable in a work that portrays real events? If so, what are they and why should they not be included? What does a careless error of fact tell you about the creators of the work? Whose responsibility is it for those errors?
Searching for truth drives us in creating our books. Perhaps we need to add our voices into the larger conversation engendered by the popular media.