The Ethical Dilemma in “The American Made Benny”

Click here to watch “The American Made Benny” which was published to mediastorm.com in December 2012.

With a name like Benny, you knew his story had to be interesting, and interesting doesn’t even begin to describe the story of “garbologist” Benny Villanova.

Benny brought the viewer along on the drunken, high, humor-filled, tragic ride that he lives every day. He was raw, nonsensical, emotional, strong, and weak all at the same time. He was, with each sentence, a journalist’s greatest dream and worst nightmare.

Benny’s life is perplexing, to say the least, to the average American. His raw emotion and bizarre quirks are what journalists love. They bring the viewer closer to the subject- make you fall in love. In theory, the interview with Benny should have been perfect. His unfiltered commentary, mixed with his narrative of extreme hardship and his ability to cope make for the perfect hero.

However, after watching the piece the viewer is left with a feeling that Benny might not be the hero after all, a sentiment echoed by the creators after the release of the video.

Benny brings up more than a few stories that make you wonder how much of the truth he is telling. Stories ranging from his “unreasonable” firing from the Sanitation Department all the way to “misunderstandings” of abuse in the home cloud Benny’s credibility, and beg for a second source to clear up the truth. Due to the nature of the project, along with refusal of the family to cooperate, the production team was unable to piece other stories together to find the truth, and was ultimately left only with what Benny had told them.

This begged the question, is it ever okay to publish a piece that might not tell the truth?

This is a question that has plagued the journalism industry since the beginning, and the answer varies heavily depending on the circumstance. In the case of Benny Villanova, I believe it is crucial to continue to run the piece.

I believe journalism has two main roles: to tell the story of events and to tell the story of people. To me these are two completely different ideas. You cannot tell either the same way. In order to understand what category a story falls under, one must understand the difference.

A piece that tells the story of an event is purely factual at the root. While it may include, and if it is a good piece of journalism will include, a degree of pathos, the main focus must be correctly telling the story. These types of stories might center on a person involved in the event, and seem like a “person story”, however the event is still the route. In “event stories” one source journalism will never be enough. The story must be fairly balanced, and the whole story represented. There is no exception- the story must be right.

The other faction of journalism has much more wiggle-room. A “person-story” revolves solely around making the viewer understand the subject. While this type of story must rely on a degree of factuality, as it is journalism, sometimes it needs to accept the possibility of falsehood to accurately represent a person. Sometimes what makes someone who they are is not fact, but what they believe to be true. The journalist’s job is to, for the length of the piece, make the viewer feel what the subject feels.

The makers of “The American Made Benny” did just this.

For 25 minutes I felt like I understood Benny, which I believe was the goal of the piece.

The makers of the film did not purposely publish any false information, nor did they lead the viewer to believe that it was true. Even a simple viewing of the film reveals major questions on the credibility of Benny. Benny himself provides the viewer with doubt over his stories. They did not paint Benny in a heroic picture at all. They did not do anything to alter Benny. They showed Benny.

How Benny sees the world around him might not be what is actually happening, but that is one of the idiosyncrasies that make Benny, Benny. He is totally and completely on a planet of his own. This altered state of reality, the very altered state that makes people question whether or not the piece should be run, is exactly what the story it is trying to tell.

“The American Made Benny” is not a story about a garbologist. If that was the case it would be called “Garbology: a look at the people who created it”. What it is the story of is the urban individual, down on his luck that relies on booze, drugs, and menial tasks to feel useful and get through the day. It is the story of the American veteran who came back only to have the very people he fought for discard him. It is the story about the person who, despite beating cancer, still lives a tough life. It is the story of the people too mentally “out there” for society to care about them.

Is Benny who he says he is? Maybe not. Are some of Benny’s stories skewed to the point of possible falsehood? Absolutely. Does Benny represent a lot of forgotten people in the US, people whose stories deserve to be told? Absolutely.

That is why Benny’s story needed to be published.

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