The life of a journalist, properly considered, consists of only two things: issues and events. Events are specific and relate to persons and circumstances. Issues are more general; they are basically swept together events that you can make sense of. Because where a relatively unambiguous story can usually be told about an event, issues leave more room for interpretation.
For example, this is an event:
• Peter R. de Vries (64) was shot in the Lange Leidsedwarsstraat in Amsterdam.
You can then easily distill three issues from one event, without doing any violence to the facts.
• Journalism under attack – Four journalists have now been murdered in Europe in four years.
• Rule of law in danger – after brother and lawyer now also confidential counselor of crown witness killed.
• Drama for alleged perpetrators – fighter against miscarriage of justice is killed.
Now the issue is this: we live in a time when events are very quickly promoted to issue. And if journalists don’t do that themselves, they are encouraged to do so by their audience. Especially on Twitter, the issue platform par excellence.
For example, on the evening of the shooting in Amsterdam that killed Vries, there was already heated discussion about whether it was mainly the rule of law or journalism that was under attack here. And so the disaster unfolding this week in Limburg from a local event quickly became an illustration of a global problem. With the help of pre-sorting algorithms and search engines, journalists and their audiences nowadays look for connections immediately after an event.
As if it were a party game: who will find the punch line?
Golden times for the know-it-all
The apples and pears are everywhere for the taking. We match a rapper who allegedly beat his wife to a rapper from the same label who asks a young fan to show his genitals. And then we jump effortlessly to what has come to be called whataboutism online. You probably know that type of online fuss: ‘If rapper A has been cancelled, why hasn’t rapper B yet?’
When a football player falls on the field, we immediately think of Blind and Nouri. ‘Is top sport actually healthy?’ And when there is a discussion about influencing a documentary about a politician, it immediately concerns the power of spokespersons in the broadest sense. ‘Who is in control at the NPO?’
In the meantime, there is even a generic name for transgressive behavior in sexual intercourse that has come to sound almost like a pet name due to the diminutive behind it: a #metoetje. We group, classify and analyze ourselves in circles, even if our associations are in fact little more than a blow in the air. We, I say, because whoever follows my Twitter feed will see that I participate diligently.
These are therefore golden times for the figure of the know-it-all, the smart-ass always raises his (usually his) hand a little earlier than everyone else to explain to his contemporaries what an event stands for. That clarity knows how to offer where others are still in the mist. In the first weeks of the pandemic, for example, a parade of talkers soon followed, who tried to force their narratives about it on the world. With success, because it is clear that all that urge to interpret pays off. The talk show tables are full of interpreters, for example, although their guild left a feather earlier this year now that chief interpreter Sywert van Lienden seems to have disappeared into the wings for a while.
No mind machine
Now you could easily be tempted to see Peter R. de Vries as the ultimate poster boy of this genre of interpretive journalism. As a trailblazer perhaps, or even a prophet, who has been ‘child on the tube’ since the early days of the talk show era. In a rare vulnerable television moment at Where is the mole? in 2009 he himself mentioned it as his biggest weakness. He called that side of himself Cruijffiaans. “I always think I know everything better.”
Still, the eternal know-it-all is certainly not the image that sticks when you draw up his journalistic legacy. For example, take a look at the 44th episode in 14 years which he devoted to the Puttense Murder Case as a crime reporter. You could even say more journalistic dedication to one specific event – who raped and murdered Christel Ambrosius on January 9, 1994? – is rarely shown. Certainly in the first three quarters of his career it was mainly the events in which his fellow men became involved – Natalee Holloway, Nicky Verstappen, Tanja Groen, the list is endless – that propelled him forward. Much more at least than the issues.
That is a journalistic legacy to cherish. And by the way, to ask yourself which broadcaster today has the patience and budget to let a maker dwell on one thing for 44 episodes. You somehow hope that a new generation of journalism students will binge-watch all 44 episodes about the Puttense Murder Case during another lockdown to see where a desire for unadulterated truth can take a journalist (and a society in the process).
In any case, history will not treat him as an opinion machine, but as man have to remember. A man who constantly forced himself and his contemporaries to see events as they actually happened. A person who saw people, in short instead of trends. And who, as an opinion maker, actually took action mainly when he saw the individual being constrained, curtailed or generalized. Think of his repeated outbursts towards Wilders’ ‘less, less’, also think of his fulminades against those who wanted to continue to cherish the racist caricature Zwarte Piet at all costs. The colorful procession of people who came to pay him their last respects at the murder site proves just how much that affected people. He was not the hero of one specific group, but always managed to transcend identity politics.
‘Being right and being right are two very different things’, he opened ominously and with that characteristic smile in which heavy pride and light mockery fought for priority in the last episode he devoted to the Putten murder case. And right he was.