"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A brief meditation on the press (or, Machen on the MSM)

Arthur Machen was a turn-of-the-century (by which I mean turn-of-the-Nineteenth-Century) writer of weird fiction. He never really made much of an impact in his own right, but was a significant influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft, of course, is now recognized as being one of the greatest writers America has produced; he got his volume in the Library of America in 2005.

So it's in that spirit that I've been reading some of Machen's work. And in "The Terror," he writes:
Now a censorship that is sufficiently minute and utterly remorseless can do amazing things in the way of hiding . . . what it wants to hide. Before the war [WW I], one would have thought otherwise; one would have said that, censor or no censor, the fact of the murder at X or the fact of the bank robbery at Y would certainly become known; if not through the press, at all events through rumour and the passage of the news from mouth to mouth. And this would be true--of England three hundred years ago, and of savage tribelands of to-day. But we have grown of late to such a reverence for the printed word and such a reliance on it, that the old faculty of disseminating news by word of mouth has become atrophied. Forbid the press to mention the fact that Jones has been murdered, and of those who hear how few will credit the story that they have heard. You meet a man in the train who remarks that he has been told something about a murder in Southwark; there is all the difference in the world between the impression you receive from such a chance communication and that given by half a dozen lines in print with name, and street and date and all the facts of the case. People in trains repeat all sorts of tales, many of them false; newspapers do not print accounts of murders that have not been committed.

(Arthur Machen, The Terror & Other Stories, pp. 3-4, Chaosium ed. 2005.)

Now, "The Terror" turns in part on the idea that information about strange murders is being suppressed by wartime censors, so I guess we should take Machen's comments with a grain of salt. And "The Terror" was originally published in serial form in the London Evening News, so there's something self-serving about the comment, too. Still, I think the comment is valid as a general statement about the state of information dispersal and retrieval throughout the 20th Century.

Clearly, we're seeing a shift away from that paradigm in the early years of the 21st Century. Is our reliance on multiple, dispersed, often low-trust sources of information (as Hugh Hewitt characterizes the blogosphere) sui generis, or instead a reversion to humankind's historic ways of gathering data and assessing facts? Machen's not definitive, by any means, but there's a sense in which his language suggests that it's the 20th Century's near-exclusive reliance on print (or, more broadly, "official") media that represents the true anomaly.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think you're on to something here, David. I know that my friends on the left have descended into a sort of epistemological nihilism, and the stats show that among Democrats, "truthers" about 9-11 have as much credibility as the administration. No source is authoritative, apparently even common sense.

Most alarming is their rejection of anything that produces a cognitive dissonance, usually on ad hom grounds: can't watch Fox News, can't read blogs like this one. National Review is The Satanic Bible.

Word of mouth, the DailyKos, Glenn Greenwald, the mainstream media only when it reinforces the prevailing narrative.

Mebbe such skepticism is good, but when your rule is to listen to the guy on the train but ignore the guy on the streetcar, we've added an ideological filter to the oral tradition.

Perhaps we're not only going back, but backwards.