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The Sins of Bonsai Journalism

With The Peruvian Revolution Is Being Televised by Alberto Fuguet (New York Times Sunday Magazine, February 25, 2001) causing lots of comments among Peruviaists, I thought that I would throw my two cents in.

With the wire agencies providing daily news and the correspondents of the major newspapers doing wrap-ups every time that they can get into Lima, the remaining media that have an interest in what happens in Peru, have to find a niche. Magazines will hire a hot writer and send him off with an expense account and two weeks to find a new angle on the events. More importantly, the writer has to find a hidden meaning that can sustain the story. His creative powers must allow us to see beyond the details to a more profound truth.

As a journalist, I can tell you how difficult it is to land in a foreign country and write a story that holds together, without sinking into platitudes. In the Fuguet story, you just have to note who his sources were. During my 12 years as a journalist in Peru, I saw a lot of bonsai writers come from Lima.

If you're lucky, you get Alma Guillermoprieto writing a piece for the New Yorker and sweating bullets to get the facts right and digging deep into the milieu. If you're not, you get Alberto Fuguet writing pop psychology of the Peruvian media, politics and society from his hotel room.

The first 10 paragraphs of the piece are fluff and there's lots of other color that simply accentuates the tone. It also revealing to look at the sources that he quotes: Rafo Leon - he's extremely perceptive, but sarcastic humor exaggerates to make its point and an careless ear can lead a writer to pick up the wrong message; Fernando Vivas - media critic who confirms Fuguet's own prejudices; and a street vendor of an eavesdropping device who ends the story with more fluff.

It's natural for a writer to be drawn to weird occurrences and customs because they seem to tell something about the society, but they can also be red herrings if you don't understand the context in which they occur.

New Yorker Letters

I am currently wading through Letter from Peru - The Government is Missing: The President, the spy chief and the videotapes by Isabel Hilton in the New Yorker's March 5, 2001 issue. It's a solidly written and extremely long piece but even she sins of talking too much to Mario Vargas Llosa and Hernando de Soto.

Peter Carlson says in Those Crazy Politicos in Peru in the Washington Post that "Hilton's piece is a classic in an under-appreciated genre of journalism -- tales of nutjob, tinhorn dictators." In a mythical "Norton Anthology of Wacky Megalomaniacal Dictators," a kind of journalistic genre, he says that Hilton's piece would make it. I assume that Fuguet would not. For worthy inclusions, read Guillermoprieto's piece about Fujimori and Vargas Llosa.