We are in the midst of one of those periodic collective uproars that demonstrate that a surprising number of people employed in the field of journalism are not actually all that in favor of reporting.
The very general proposition of journalism is this: The public has a right to know true things that are important to the public. It is the job of journalists to supply the public with these true things. This broad idea applies in practice not just to the goings-on of government, but to crime, and business, and science, and sports, and the actions of all sorts of people who are famous and/or notorious, either temporarily or permanently. If you think for a short moment about your own media consumption you will find that you regularly consume information about all of these topics, courtesy of all sorts of journalists, and take it as normal.
Journalists seek to publish true information about influential people—in politics, in business, in the celebrity world, and in the arts. This is not and should not be a controversial undertaking. Particularly not for journalists themselves. If you are employed as a journalist it is fairly critical that you buy into the idea that Knowledge Is Good.
Elena Ferrante is a very famous novelist. Her books are read and discussed around the world. Last year, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She is, by any standard, a public figure, as well as an important writer whose personal biographical history will be chewed over for decades in pursuit of a greater understanding of her work.
She is also a pseudonym. It is fine for famous people to employ pseudonyms to try to keep their identities secret. It is also rather obligatory for journalists to try to find out their true identity. Any famous person employing a pseudonym should understand that by doing so they are automatically making the nature of their true identity more newsworthy. Who is this person? What are their motivations? How are we to understand them? It is impossible to answer these questions without first knowing who someone really is. The use of a pseudonym creates an impassable barrier to doing what journalists are supposed to do with important people: report true things that help us understand them. Therefore any decent journalist who actually cared about this most pedestrian aspect of his or her job would feel obliged to discover a pseudonymous star’s real identity, if it were possible. It is okay for an influential person to try to remain secret, and it is equally okay for a journalist to seek their true identity, using the tools of reporting. All of this should be unremarkable.
Last weekend, an Italian journalist published his findings regarding the true identity of Elena Ferrante. Then a crazy thing happened: Everyone got mad at him. Not just regular Elena Ferrante fans—who, like fans of any celebrity from Donald Trump to Kim Kardashian to Aaron Rodgers, can be expected to react to any perceived slight of their demigod in a negative way—but other journalists, who might be expected to support the undertaking of reporting true things about famous, influential people.
Just a few examples: In The New Yorker, a publication that itself has revealed a few secrets, Alexandra Schwartz decried the reporting, saying “Ferrante’s steadfast artistic choice to be anonymous can only be that: an artistic choice, made at the beginning of her writing career for private reasons that she deemed essential.” New York magazine ran a blog post titled “Leave Elena Ferrante Alone.” The New Republic called the reveal “sexist” and noted, “her fans did not want this.”
Journalists who write about the arts are not obligated to restrict their reporting to what fans of the artist want. And thank god for that! Nor are journalists required to avoid reporting on a matter of public interest because a famous and influential person had “private reasons.” And thank god for that! One hopes that this is just an instance of writers for very influential publications being temporarily overcome by their fandom for a famous writer, rather than a true statement of any sort of journalistic policy. Because as journalistic policy, opposing the reporting of the true identity of a globally famous pseudonymous person is insane.
I like Banksy. I think it is cool that Banksy has stayed (more or less) anonymous for so long. I would also report his identity if I learned it. If there was an incredible basketball player who played in a mask and used a fake name, his identity would be news, and reporters would report it no matter how beautiful his crossover was. That’s how the system works.
Years from now, literary scholars will write detailed academic papers exploring every intricacy of the life of “Elena Ferrante” in order to tease out more information about how her novels came about. There will be no uproar then, but that work will be enabled by this reporting. Nobody has to love journalists—indeed, most people don’t!—but journalists should at least be in general support of the act of journalism.