Michael Kaufman of the New York Times wrote a wonderful obituary of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski on January 24th. Kapuscinski, who was 74 when he died, had a day job (of over 40 years), of gathering information about conflicts throughout the world and reporting them for a Polish news agency. His reports, for which he never took notes using instead his memory "to stimulate his poetic imagination," were, not surprisingly, "often tinged with magical realism." Kapuscinski himself wrote: "Its what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper."
In copyright cases involving new reporting, one frequently encounters the claim that "news" is not copyrightable. Of course, the facts of an event -- The Emperor Haile Selassie (born Tafari Makonnen) death on August 27, 1975 -- aren't protectible, but descriptions of the event and life at Selassie's court are. (See Kapuscinki's great 1978 book "The Emperor"). The issue arose in Harper & Row, Publisher, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539 (1985), where the late President Gerald Ford sought to protect his "word portraits" of the Nixon pardon and other historical events.
Historians have gone even further, being quite skeptical about the idea that facts are merely discovered. Carl Becker, writing in 1910, quipped: “The witty remark of Dumas, that Lamartine had raised history to the dignity of romance, would have appealed to Thomas Buckley who was much occupied with reducing it to the level of a science.” History as literature was the dominant view until this time, and the “scientific” view of history was short-lived. Some historians were quite blunt about their disdain for objectivity. George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962), great-nephew of the great Whig historian Thomas Macaulay, wrote in an essay called “Bias in History” that his own three books on the Italian leader Garibaldi, (written 1907-1911), were “reeking with bias,” and that “Without bias, I should never have written them at all. For I was moved to write them by a poetical sympathy with the passions of the Italian patriots of the period, which I retrospectively shared.”
Kapuscinki's writings were less about political sympathy and more about the use of metaphor and allegory to cut to the soul of the matter. This point is illustrated in a oft-told story about his winning of Poland's Golden Cross of Merit. Kapuscinki had written an article about the poor treatment of steel workers at a plant near Krakow that had been extolled as showpiece of protelarian culture. His account caused his firing under government pressure. After a blue-ribbon panel was appointed to look into the matter, Kapuscinki's story was vindicated, and he received the aforementioned award. Now that's magical realism.