I shall now explain evil in the mass media, beginning with a gorgeous example gleaned from the fields of (where else?) broadcasting.
But as all bright people know -- and just here let me say it is a constant distress to writers that readers are brighter than they have any right to be -- most mischief committed by the media springs from faulty comprehension, clumsy wording, inexperienced judgment or general idiocy, and I shall wrap up those flaws, too, in a nutshell.
You noticed, surely (to return to evil in its purest culture) that the British Broadcasting Corporation now acknowledges a fraud of incomparable gulf:
On that gorgeous day when the late Mr. Churchill was holding all England in his arms, against a most hostile night, he purportedly addressed the world on the BBC. "We shall fight . . . we shall never surrender."
Not to split hairs about it, the world's heart raced for a thousand beats to hear his words.
And now it turns out it was not Churchill at all, delivering the great speech, but an actor impersonating him.
Well. How, you will ask, was it possible for the BBC to take part in such a fraud? It would have been simple enough to tell listeners that Churchill did not record the speech (given to the House of Commons) but that the text would be read for us by an actor, with Churchill's approval.
The fraud, as actually perpetrated, was possible because those who okayed it for the air were fraudulent men. I fancy it is still not too late to take them out and shoot them dead, and trust this will be done within a week.
It's rare to find, however, such marvelous instances of despicable, lunkhead, blackheart, pig-souled sin as the BBC has afforded us. There is no statute of limitations on fraud, for the excellent reason there is no fixed term for the damage done by fraud and as I say it is not too late to bring on the killer bees.
Then there was that National Broadcasting Co. affiliate station, in one of our regional capitals, that was covering a national political convention. The network from time to time switched from the convention floor to angry protesters outside the hall. Whenever that happened, the station blacked it out and showed a sign, "NETWORK TROUBLE. Please Stand By." The station manager did not want the protest to be shown.
He could, of course, have simply announced that "we shall now show demonstrations outside the hall, but only the events of the convention inside the hall" and that would have been honest. Which is why he did not choose that route, I suspect.
But that was only a Grade B example of media evil, a sly deception, on a relatively unimportant station. As far as I know, the national network, which knew about it, let it pass without comment. The function of the affiliate station was, after all, to make money for NBC, not to speak the truth.
We turn now to the more dangerous, but alas less delicious, area that is best thought of as murk.
Once there was a bash at the State Department for Benjamin Franklin or some such thing and John Ehrlichman started garumphing at me about a story in this very newspaper. It was one of the very first stories about Watergate, which had not unraveled at all, and which other papers did not touch. He went up one side of me and down the other, because I was a reporter here, about what he called yellow journalism.
And the worst part of it was that he had an excellent point. The story he complained of did not, in fact, quite back up with facts the impression it was conveying.
It would have been an unconscionable story, except that the men who wrote it knew a great deal more -- halfway -- than they could justify printing. One thing they knew was that Watergate was going to be a very big deal, involving more than an obscure burglary.
Is it better to say nothing until (months later) you have a mountain of corroborating facts, or go to press with such few facts as you have, saying nothing about the things you can almost print but not quite?
Another splendid area of murk, in which I have often found myself in past years, is the choice of sources. You can choose the obviously best ones only to discover later they were misinformed and honestly passed their misinformation along to you.In stories of great importance, anybody knows to check from a dozen different directions, but in stories of only moderate size (the only kind I ever wrote) it is possible to be sensibly thorough and still have egg on your face.
We come now to Grade C evil, which most media folk know a lot about.Here the mischief is done by misunderstanding or misinterpreting what is said.
A fellow recently told me that after the first volley of German attack in Poland, "everything for me after that was just cows and confusion."
How splendid.I could see the poor cows of rural Poland lowing across the fields as ruin rained down. What he actually said was, "chaos and confusion" and he pronounces chaos as cows.
Whenever you hear anything picturesque, you should always spell it out, say it back, to make sure you have it right. But when you are delighted with the cows and confusion, it never occurs to you that you have heard it wrong. Even if you say "cows" back to him, as I did, he won't correct you.
A related source of mischief comes in long interviews lasting hours. The same topic may be alluded to a dozen times, without ever being a central issue.
If you want to know what the fellow is saying, you do well to listen and to talk with him back and forth, and in that way you see what he really means, whereas if you transcribe every word you will miss those cues not always verbal, that lead you to understand him better, even causing you to take a new tack.
It is an awesome responsibility (to reporters, at least; nobody else takes us so seriously) to interpret correctly what you have in fact learned over some hours.
Just recently, in a piece about the writer Geoffrey Wolff, I said his latest book was the first that had greatly pleased critics or had splendid reviews -- the meaning was apparent that his earlier books had not been critical successes.
I understand this from our long talk, but it was just the sort of thing I mentioned earlier: We did not say, "Now we'll talk about critical reception of your earlier books."
But there were allusions to reviews, off and on through our talks.
It turns out the earlier books had better than average critical attention and occasional enthusiastic praise in the main American newspapers.
How did I gather, then, the earlier books were pretty much ignored by critics? Simply by failing to understand what the author said to me.
This is the kind of mischief papers dread. The world won't stop if a reporter gets it wrong about what critics thought of a fellow's earlier books. But such failures not only distress the author, they are also an affront to the truth.
Most reporters have made this sort of error, and the errors are most likely in "small" rather than large matters. But if you misunderstand minor points, maybe you misunderstand major ones as well?
It may be good for reporters, who commonly trot about cloaked in their aura of agonized accuracy, to be laid bare from time to time.
But it hurts. Like the guy in the ad who can't believe he ate the whole thing. You can't believe something you understood so well was in fact something you quite misunderstood.
Cows and confusion, all is cows and confusion I often think. A writer's life is not a happy one. But I think it will be better once we shoot those bastards at the B.B.&C.