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Exposé Entertainment Is the Surprise Hit of the Summer

In an environment thick with conspiracy, we thrill to stories of truth versus evil. But at what cost?

Christopher Dombres / Wikimedia Commons

This week, Jody Rosen published a long investigative article in The New York Times Magazine about a 2008 fire at a Universal Music Group vault that, he showed, consumed a significant portion of the label’s master tapes. It’s written in the classic exposé style, using documentary evidence to rip apart a cover-up by UMG, which had concealed the extent of the loss—to its archives as well as to the broader culture—through nefarious misinformation schemes.

The piece has been a hit online. There are likely several reasons for its popularity, not least of which is Rosen’s deep reporting into a technology with which most of us are only superficially familiar. In explaining why master tapes are necessary to preserve the original act of musical production, he points out the absence of institutional archives for sound in this country and the way Xerox-style delivery systems like Spotify erode that production’s integrity.

But “The Day the Music Burned” also struck a nerve with its deft and unimpeachable exposure of a conspiracy by a feckless corporate overlord—and outright conspiracies have not enjoyed so much prominence since the days of Watergate at least. For years liberal America has been obsessed with the tantalizing prospect of a white knight laying bare a vile conspiracy by Trump and his Russian admirers to steal the 2016 election, only for Robert Mueller’s report to be subsumed by a seemingly endless palaver over impeachment. Here, in Rosen’s report, was a familiar form of truth. Here was a kind of justice.

A similar dynamic might explain the other hit of the week: HBO’s Chernobyl, the partly fictionalized adaptation of Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history, Voices of Chernobyl. Like “The Day the Music Burned,” Chernobyl has risen like cream for a number of reasons: its close attention to period detail, like clothing and architecture; its strange inversion of history into something like science fiction. But perhaps its real appeal is its implicit offer that, in the words of our conspiracy era’s spiritual predecessor, The X-Files, the truth is out there.

Both “The Day the Music Burned” and Chernobyl start their stories in medias res, before the ignition event—at the UMG vault and at the nuclear power plant, respectively—has become public knowledge. We see events unfold through the eyes of ordinary men who worked at the facilities (ashen-faced nuclear scientists in the case of Chernobyl; Randy Aronson, senior director of vault operations, in the case of the UMG fire). The lens of the narrative then broadens to explain the sequence of small errors that ultimately led to total disaster, pounds home some big points about what mankind needs to do next, then culminates in a second version of the fire story, this time newly privileged by insight. Meanwhile, the everyman hero of the story is brought low, providing emotional stakes. (“It was like those end-of-the-world-type movies,” Aronson told Rosen of the fire. “I felt like my planet had been destroyed.”) The editing, in both cases, is really good.

It’s a pretty perfect shape for a story, which is why cover-up busts are so satisfying to consume. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the fire at the UMG vault were very different events with different levels of traumatic consequence. But their structural resonance sheds light on three aspects of the relationship between narrative and politics today.

First, we consumers of highbrow entertainment are desperate for stories about truth, preferably told by traditional truth-telling institutions like The New York Times or serious British television. The very content of each story vindicates the platform hosting it: By giving Rosen so much space, the Times piece implicitly celebrates investigative journalism, while Chernobyl valorizes the docu-drama that tells the truth about a corrupt government to large numbers of people, who are themselves living under a corrupt government.

Second, the “truths” covered up in each story speak eloquently about the kind of lie we now fear most. Chernobyl shows the destruction wrought when politicians dissolve the boundary between fact (represented by the scientists’ claims) and fiction (represented by Soviet propaganda). The show closes with a quote from Gorbachev’s memoirs noting that Chernobyl was the real cause of the fall of the Soviet Union, thus strongly suggesting not only that the truth will out, but that it will also prevail, ultimately causing regime change.

The Gorbachev quote also contains what we could call a political theory of knowledge: Men originate lies; nature originates truth. This, too, is one of Rosen’s themes. His master tapes serve as a metaphor for all the analog art left behind by the digital age. It isn’t safe, he shows. He drives hard at the material tapes as symbols of our growing disconnect from the physical world.

The problem with conspiracy-stories is that they reduce complex and sometimes arbitrary events into a beginning, middle, and end. They express our fears while simplifying them. Which leads us to a third narrative/politics conundrum, which is that the exposé is a genre that must justify itself. As Masha Gessen notes in her review of Chernobyl, the show falls down when it makes heroes of its protagonists. It turns them into outspoken whistleblowers, where in real life they would have been obedient, because that was life in the USSR. Chernobyl in the end perpetuates a fantasy where truth and lies are distinguishable, and corruption can be peeled away to reveal the readings on the scientific instruments. Isn’t that our most cherished liberal fantasy—that the arts and sciences will brandish a flaming sword against the liars who rule us, and set us free once more?

The payoff of “The Day the Music Burned” is more abstract. For the reader of investigative journalism, such articles are a return on their ideological investment. Rosen’s article is a great achievement, packaging an extraordinary true story in the concerns of the human heart. But take away the subject matter, and what remains? An exchange: I, the reader, believe in The New York Times. In return they give me the truth, in the form of this paragon of an article. From this exchange my faith in truth-telling institutions and their power is replenished.

This is how we formulate the relation of our political identities to truth: through stories, and the ways they help us discern between truth and lie. The more common a story structure becomes, however, the more it enters the invisible machinery of our instincts—and the more the truth, the actual truth, is taken for granted.