Grisham's Law

By Gillers, Stephen | The Nation, April 18, 1994 | Go to article overview

Grisham's Law


Gillers, Stephen, The Nation


It's got a Client and a Firm and if you believe the rumors, A Time to Kill. Whitewater is really a John Grisham novel. Half the people on my downtown bus are reading Grisham books and the other half, between Grishams, are reading installments of Whitewater.

Grisham, Whitewater. Whitewater, Grisham. Which was I reading this morning? Oh, they do begin to converge. Whitewater is a mystery, too. Who will tell it best? The Times? The Journal?. The Post?. Who will advance the story beyond yesterday's news? Who will pose the most engrossing speculation? (If it's too speculative, put it in an editorial or in a column called "Reading Hillary's Mind.") Woe unto the newspaper with nothing new to say. The press got us hooked on this. It better deliver.

A recent issue of The New Republic satirized how news and entertainment intersect with Whitewater. On the issues cover was the mock dust jacket of a pulp novel. Its title: "The Poisoned Rose." The tag line: "They called it a prestigious law firm. But law wasn't its only business." The cover-art style: film noir. And the article itself was written in what Michael Kinsley has called a "mysterioso" style. The first paragraph mentions Raymond Chandler.

But was it satire? Or was it a considered choice of the best way to convey the symbiotic relationship among government, business and law in Little Rock in the 1980s? Whatever. The result is the reportorial equivalent of cross-dressing. When journals of opinion slip into mystery writers' garb, a reader can get confused.

A March 27 New York Times article said the following about a government investigator whose superiors had rejected her advice to prosecute Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan: "The question now is whether Ms. Lewis is a misguided zealot or the woman who exposed the truth behind the Whitewater affair." That's it? Could she be well intentioned but wrong? Ill motivated but right? A little of each? Not if she's in Whitewater. While art dwells in ambiguity, popular culture thrives on extremes: good and evil, hero and villain, zealot and truthsayer.

The storyteller's art surfaces in the reporting on Whitewater in tone, sentence structure and use of innuendo. There's no burden of proof for innuendo. We can all suppose what we like.

Popular culture may influence how we tell and hear stories about real events, but there remains one difference between entertainment and news. The entertainer creates the entertainment. It did not previously exist. Journalists pursue their stories, which must already be there even if only in inchoate form.

So what? This difference has shrunk in significance. When the story is big enough, journalists will compete to tell it better. …

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