Whenever I don’t feel well, I read Terry Pratchett. The other day I felt kind of icky, so I dug through a few of the boxes of books piled around my tiny efficiency apartment until I dislodged The Truth. It’s about a young man, William de Worde, who happens to invent the newspaper. He doesn’t set out to shake up the political framework of his city, but he does so anyway.
If you’ve never read a Discworld novel, it’s satire. Pratchett holds a mirror to our existing society. He provides a lot of commentary on the motivations of ordinary people. His leading characters often have some grand goal or scheme, although not always on purpose. They always have to push through the miasma of the entropy that governs the common men and women that surround them. They usually don’t succeed in changing “the people” but do somehow become an accepted part of the everyday background noise.
Here is William’s first conversation with the head of the Watch, Commander Vimes. He’s the top police officer in the city:
At last, like some oracle that speaks once a year, Vimes said, “I don’t trust you, Mr. de Worde. And I’ve just realized why. It’s not just that you’re going to cause trouble. Dealing with trouble is my job, it’s what I’m paid for, that’s why they give me an armor allowance. But who are you responsible to? I have to answer for what I do, although right now I’m damned if I know who to. But you? It seems to me you can do what the hell you like.”
“I suppose I’m answerable to the truth, sir.”
“Oh, really? How, exactly?”
“If you tell lies, does the Truth come and smack you in the face?”
This passage makes me think about the responsibility of journalists, a conversation I’m sure we’re all sick of. There’s a lot of public hand-wringing about the 24-hour news cycle and over-coverage of tragedy. Just yesterday I was listening to a podcast about letting cameras in the Supreme Court, and one of the arguments against allowing cameras is that TV journalists will take soundbites to use in the evening news and the public won’t understand the context of those soundbites. It’s the same concern that Vimes has when de Worde writes about his investigation. He makes a good point: who holds the press accountable when they mislead the public? Just this week NBC news anchor Brian Williams confessed to gross exaggeration about a war story he has been telling for twelve years!
I think the correct answer to Vimes’s question is that each of us holds each other accountable. The problem is that most people don’t consider it their responsibility to question every authority.
After the first publication of the newspaper, William de Worde listens to a conversation of folks who don’t know he was the publisher.
“It says here fifty-six people were hurt in a brawl,” said Mr. Mackleduff… He had bought a copy of the Times on his way home from the bakery, where he was a night-shift foreman.
“Fancy,” said Mrs. Arcanum.
“I think it must have been five or six,” said William.
“Says fifty-six here,” said Mr. Mackleduff sternly. “In black and white.”
“It must be right,” said Mrs. Arcanum, to general agreement, “otherwise they wouldn’t let them put it in.”
“I wonder who’s doing it?” said Mr. Prone, who traveled in wholesale boots and shoes.
“Oh, they’d be special people for doing this,” said Mr. Mackleduff.
“Really?” said William.
“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Mackleduff, who was one of those large men who were instantly expert on anything. “They wouldn’t allow just anyone to write what they like. That stands to reason.”
So a typo leads to widespread belief that 56 people were injured in a brawl, when logically, that number should be 5 or 6. Mackleduff assumes that because it was printed in “black and white” it must be true. Because the common men and women don’t take a moment to question the integrity of the paper– instead they have faith that some authority is verifying everything– the perception that a huge brawl took place becomes Truth. We know that because rare stories about violence get the most press, people perceive their hometowns as a more dangerous place. This leads to real harm. The mother of a 6-year-old in Missouri staged a kidnapping of him to teach him to stop talking to strangers. Nevermind that the head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that stranger-danger is a myth.
Well, now I’m frustrated with the world again, which makes me feel icky. I think I’ll go read some more Terry Pratchett.