Now that the "Hitler diaries" have been dismissed as the beguiling fraud that they are, perhaps we can turn our attention to the matter of the role of the press in aiding and abetting that fraud. There's been plenty of scolding talk about Hugh Trevor-Roper and his embarrassing venture into "instant history." But what about the press and its enthusiastic participation in promoting "diaries" that The Economist suggests "are the biggest fakes since two Italian ladies wrote the 'Mussolini' ones?"
For the press--I think specifically of the German magazine Stern and the Times newspapers of London, though the American newsweeklies only narrowly escaped joining them in shame--the Hitler affair has been a case of leap first and look later. Not at all surprisingly, the second part of that sequence has proved exceedingly disconcerting for all involved. As has been demonstrated by a number of careful analyses, perhaps most notably that of Edwin M. Yoder Jr., there was no reason save wishful thinking to believe that these "diaries" were anything except forgeries of no particular distinction or cleverness. Yet notwithstanding these devastating dissections of the "diaries," those publications that acquired a vested interest in them persisted in defending their authenticity, even as the arguments for it grew shabbier and shabbier.
The reason for this, quite apart from self-interest and greed and other familiar motives, is that these publications permitted themselves to become active partners in the process of hype. As defined by Stephen M.L. Aronson in his new book, "Hype," that process is "the merchandising of a product--be it an object, a person or an idea--in an artifically engendered atmosphere of hysteria, in order to create a demand for it or to inflate such demand as already exists." Although Aronson devotes far too little space to the crucial role of the press in this "outrageous and duplicitous" process, his book is an extremely useful examination of the ways in which the business of selling is now conducted; and one would have to look long and far to find a more prototypical instance of the hard sell than the merchandising campaign on behalf of the "Hitler diaries."
Aronson's book is as breezy and brassy as its subject ("form must marry content," he says), and although its aggressively flip, accusatory tone eventually becomes tiresome, it is amusing reading. Beginning with an examination of the career of the model Cheryl Tiegs, who "grew up to become the illustrative model of hype, which may be defined as much more ado about something than that something is ever worth," Aronson goes on to paint a devastating portrait of the ways in which the processes of promotion and publicity acquire lives of their own.
There are, need it be said, more than enough case studies to fill what is in fact a very long book: Elaine's, the New York restaurant "where public people go to be private in public," a place patronized by journalists who "hype the restaurant in any publication they have access to"; the advertising effort for Blackgama furs, featuring "Legends" who "hold the mirror up, not to nature but to artifice"; the hustling of products by famous athletes in an age "when children worship heroes who themselves worship products"; the proliferation of big-time public relations "communicants," expert at "using jargon to talk around, above, beyond and behind an issue"; the hegemony of the gossip column, with its diet of luminaries that "has expanded from the upper reaches of stardom down, down, down to include businessmen, publishers, athletes, pop musicians, cosmetics tycoons, fashion designers, record company executives, gay liberationists, porn stars, hairdressers, plastic surgeons, coroners and gossip columnists themselves."
No matter what form it may take, the process always boils down to the same core: "All hype is based on worn-out words, on a handful of fatuous superlatives that collapse under the least intellectual pressure. Every hype adjective, every hype sentence, may as well have an exclamation mark. 'Remarkable!' 'Profound!' 'Superb!' 'Sublime!' 'Magnificent!' 'Exceptional!' 'August!' ('Some of the most august people with whom I work go to Elaine's,' says PR man Bobby Zarem. 'August'?) Soon, anything less than 'incomparably great!' or 'uniquely grand!' will have to be interpreted as a put-down."
Unfortunately, though, Aronson does not make anything even approximating a systematic study of the ways in which the press collaborates in this seedy manipulation of public opinion in the interests of "money, power, fame." He does argue that "too many critics indulge in high-flown, superheated language," and that "if most of our critics are reviewers and most of our reviewers are flacks, then it's flacks who are setting standards today." But for whatever reason, he never gets to the serious issues that are raised when, in an atmosphere hysterical with hype, the press becomes not a reporter of news, or a commentator on it, but a manufacturer and merchandiser of it.
It goes without saying that in hyping the "Hitler diaries," the publications involved scarcely broke new ground; so long as there has been a press, there have been publishers and editors willing to abuse its privileges for profit and/or notoriety. But the case of the "Hitler diaries" is especially distasteful because of the degree to which publications of decent, even honorable, reputation flung aside all except the pretense of journalistic objectivity in the race to beat each other aboard the bandwagon of hype. It was embarrassing to watch an executive of Stern on "CBS Morning News" last week, brandishing sample volumes of the "diaries" and lamely arguing in their defense; it was not significantly less embarrassing to read about the great contest between Time and Newsweek for access to the diaries, a contest that apparently was at last ended by a belated recognition of the professional requirement to exercise sound, sober judgment--an exercise that, in this instance, by the narrowest of margins prevented the magazines from making utter fools of themselves.
Readers certainly must be forgiven if they detect, in the determination with which some publications clung to the fantasy that the "diaries" were authentic, a desire not to expand the historical record but to win the championship of this competition in hype and to collect the rewards therefrom. This is just the kind of short-term profit that, over the long term, only comforts--and legitimizes--those who criticize the press for trendiness, shallowness and venal self-interest. Representation of the "diaries" as authentic by those who published them, even though scarcely a scholar could be found to vouch for them, had nothing to do with news judgment and everything to do with hype; and there is ample reason for readers to wonder whether, if a publication attempts to dupe them into believing that the "Hitler diaries" are the real thing, anything else that it prints can be believed