“Lies, damned lies and statistics”. This was how a great thinker once described the social deference to official numbers. Far from being the granddaddy of the modern day conspiracy theorists, he had a point.
Though he would have been even more on the money had the line went “lies, damned lies and media”. Despite such well known and well worn notions as “journalistic integrity” and things being “in black and white” and therefore true, it is a sad fact of humanity that as long as there have been modes of mass communication, there have been people using them to their own ends.
The truth often having little to nothing to do with it. Not really lying in most cases, because, by definition, to be able to lie, one must know what the truth is.
The granddaddy of smear campaigns
William Shakespeare is recognized, except among the muppets in the “anti-Stratfordian” camp, as one of the keenest observers of the human condition. Theater then, as now, was recognized as being largely fictional.
Though this only adds weight to a production that is meant to be “historical”. The potent combination of the Bard of Avon with historical events ought to create a work not only of great importance but also keen, insightful accuracy.
Alas, in at least one case, this is not what happened. The public image of Richard of York, better known as Richard III has been based entirely on Shakespeare’s play. A play written during the reign of Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII, founder of the House of Tudor. Henry VII was also the one who usurped the throne from the House of York at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, starting the Tudor dynasty.
A fact which makes Shakespeare’s credibility on the subject strained at best.
Disinformation and fake celebrity deaths
One of the running jokes of the modern Internet is the disinformation on Celebrity Deaths. Not the actual deaths of famous folks but cases in which a Death is reported online, much to the surprise of the well-known personage in question.
While decried as a symptom of the speed and ease of digital media, such misreporting has been a problem for centuries. One of the most famous, if misquoted, examples of premature obituary was in 1897.
While on tour in London, someone started a rumor that Mark Twain was gravely ill. Quickly followed by one that he had die, fact checkers not having been invented yet. Taking the incident in his stride, also being a journalist and editor in addition to his sideline in fiction, Twain wrote a response stating “the report of my death was an exaggeration”.
An understatement on par with calling Napoleon “a tad ambitious”.
A not so grand tradition
While the case of Mr. Twain’s premature death report is used as a funny anecdote and generally regarded as an exception, this is not the case. The media at the time ran on rumor, often having little else to go on, and basically invented the brand of sensationalism well known to tabloid reporters to this day.
Many like to think that the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles C. Johnson are products of the digital age. In actual fact, when it comes to a certain type of reporting, they are staunch traditionalists.
The rumor-mill is a fact of life going back nearly as far as Western Civilization itself. The Roman governor Marcus Tullius Cicero once wrote, with regard to his extensive information network: “Others will write, many will bring me news, much too will reach me even the way of rumor.” This was written in 59 BC.
The myth of balanced media
Journalistic impartiality does not exist. People are biased. It is a fact. The best that can be done is to try to restrain one’s own opinion and give equal time to at least two sides of an issue, letting the audience come to their own conclusions.
A master of this approach is documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. I have literally no idea what the filmmaker’s opinion is on any of the subjects he has covered. Aside from this, bias will always come into play and what is considered to be “right” or “wrong” will depend largely on one’s own opinion.
In this case the words “right” and “wrong” often mean “good” or “bad” as opposed to the more literal interpretation of “true” or “false”. This goes all the way back to the very early days of printed media. Everybody and their brother were publishing pamphlets at the time.
Anyone who had a room and a printing press was regarded as a legitimate news source, at least by people who agreed with them. Sounds a lot like blogs, right?