The article from The Guardian (much reproduced elsewhere) is an excellent discussion of celebrity fandom and magazines. No doubt in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, Brad and Angelina will get a break from the front pages for a week or two as mourning and sensational revelations take their place.
One of the things that most interested me about the article though was its discussion of the vexed issue of truth and fact. As a historian, I am supposed to trade in truth and fact; as a cultural theorist (and to be fair to my discipline, a post modern historian also) I understand that this trade is in many ways an illusion. Truth and facts are a matter of perspective, of interpretation, so how can we dismiss all that these magazines may have to say.
Obviously there are lines around the truth. Where pure fiction is involved, where the writer deliberately makes something up, we can call this fiction. However, as the article notes:
Pure fabrication by magazines is rare, Navarre maintains. “Coming from hard news, we had this idea that in gossip, everything’s fake. But now I’m on the gossip side, I’m surprised by how most of the time it’s not. You’ll have a little bit of news – a hint. I thought the fight between Angelina and Aniston would be totally fake, but it’s not. Ninety per cent of the time, it comes from something true.” Besides, he says, sounding briefly like a French poststructuralist philosopher, “there is this idea that there is only one truth, and that you have to stick to it. But maybe not.”
Not that there is anything wrong with sounding like a French poststructuralist philosopher….
The article also discusses the issue of point of view, noting that people do tell different stories to the different people in their lives. The most wonderful analogy for history that I have ever heard is that you can consider the past to be like a mountain: when you write about and describe that mountain, your description of it will vary according to all sorts of things – how close you are, how far away, whether you like snow or not, whether the sun is shining the day you are describing it, which side of it you are on, how long you have looked at it for, whether you are interested in the vegetation on it or the purely the mountain itself. So it is for history – your description of the past depends on your perspective, your interests and your preferences. In order to get a true picture of the mountain, we need to put all the descriptions together.
So too if we undertook the exercise of having six different people from different parts of our lives describe us and our life and our state of mind. What my close friends would say about me is different from the perspective of my family, my physio or my colleagues – and even different people within those groups would have different emphases.
In saying all this, I do not want to be an apologist for gossip magazines, but I think that we have to be very careful about the ways and the criteria we use to condemn them. Truthfulness really doesn’t cut it. I am sure that all of us have read/viewed the same story with slightly different facts and interpretations on different (reputable!) news sources on the same day. The political week last week also displayed the many angles and ideas of how a news story can be built. Pity Godwin Grech who has been built into a oddball, loner by the media because it fits their interpretation of events – it melds into the same kind of narrative pattern that we see played out in the gossip magazines. We all like and cling to familiar tropes; they help us make sense of events as we puzzle over the whys and wherefores.
As far as I see it, it is not a matter of questioning the veracity of gossip magazines; it is a matter of questioning the veracity of everything; of critically analysing, of looking for easy and familiar patterns which have been imposed on stories to make them narratives; of noting the ideological constructs.
And then, you decide for yourself.