Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Private Eye

Yesterday I paid a all too brief visit to the fitness center in the morning for the first time, and found that's when it's really crowded.  Only one treadmill was open, and that one I knew was directly beneath the relentless barrage of Fox News always on the TV facing it, so that's why my stay was brief.  I'd like to use the rower also but it is in front of an even bigger TV also always on the Noise channel.  Oh, well.  It's either a soft stomach or a soft brain, and I guess it will be the former, being the lesser of two evils.

Then back at home, what is the daily topic of friend Cliff's blog "Just Another Life," but a look at journalism?  And I've been thinking a lot about that lately, since seeing yesterday, on the Fake News scroll, their claim that over 50% of Americans oppose the Affordable Care Act.  Any other source has it that over 50% support it.  They just make it up; you decide.

The Heritage Foundation agitprop machine just recently touted the results of a survey which I'm sure cycled through Fox, the Washington Times, Limbaugh and all the rest, which had numbers they liked.  On a much less noticed website, a reporter took that survey apart and found the usual:  it was taken from a very small sample in a heavily Republican district who were polled with misleading questions.  I guess those too slimy to even be lawyers find their way to employment at the Heritage and the thousands of similar Institutes and Foundations.

Even eyewitness reportage and testimony without an axe to grind or an ideology to spin is often less than half accurate, despite having great weight in our justice system.  I can think of stories in VA, PA, TX and especially IL in which men have spent a large part of their lives in prison, innocent, due to eyewitness testimony.  More entertainment and hyperbole than reportage, stories of the bad guys of the Old West were seldom witnessed at all but printed in newspapers of the day, written from far away with much more fiction, color and rumor employed than facts.  And the audience is always receptive and ready to believe a juicy myth, like the Spanish explorers lured inland by natives' tales of cities of gold, or on the pages of today's tabloids.

History starts out as reportage but the essential stories of serious,  influential events are often lost or suppressed if they don't fit the kind of tale that the powers that be want in the official or popular record.  The history we read in school did not make clear the importance of exactly what Lewis and Clark saw and carefully recorded:  the diseases of the Europeans moved far in advance of explorers and settlers, penetrating  fast and devastatingly into the interior.  They found Mandan and Hidatsa villages in the northern plains where a European had hardly been seen in decades (a few fur traders at most) full of people dead and dying from influenza and smallpox.  Their journal and drawings are available to us now, but we surely did not hear of or understand the great extent of these plagues and how native society was mostly destroyed before ever being contacted.  Thee hundred years earlier, the Spanish had barely landed in Florida when their diseases destroyed 80 - 90% of the population all the way into Texas.

We still have a report from a rational, not sensationalist, English chronicler in the year 1150 who admitted he had heard from "many and ... competent witnesses," about an unusual event which defied his understanding.  It seems that reapers going about the harvest in East Anglia were surprised by two children, a boy and a girl, who emerged from depressions the locals called "wolf pits," who "were completely green in their persons."  It was such a novelty in that small and out of the way place that the locals kept the two captive without food while they marveled at the novel sight of green children.  Eventually someone showed them how to remove beans from the pods they had been offered and they ate that for months before being introduced to bread.  Then, "at length, by degrees, they changed their original colour, through the natural effect of our food, and they became like ourselves."  The boy, unfortunately, did not long survive his baptism, but his sister lived to be married and eventually explained that where they had come from it was always twilight and they had found themselves in the pit after hearing a great sound, but that is all they knew.  Our chronicler, William of Newburgh, concludes with

Let every one say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.

Be it literature in the rough, the science of opinion molding and propaganda, fancy and humbug, a razor-sharp report by Hemingway or half-literate babble from a television mannequin, we all like the stories journalists tell us.



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