These literary choices make sense for the many Americans who see Trump as a serious threat to America’s constitutional order. But what about the many others who see threats elsewhere? A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that while the president’s unfavorability ratings are remarkably high, the reporters covering the president aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory. Forty-seven percent of respondents disapprove of President Trump — but 53 percent believe that the media overstate the problems in his administration. Similarly, 51 percent believe that the media have been too critical of the president; only 6 percent say that the media should be more critical. And although Americans trust the media more than they trust the president, a Gallup poll from September shows that only 32 percent of Americans trust the press “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.”
A reading list for our times should take into account this widespread skepticism of the media. And perhaps the classic novel that best captures some of the sentiments that many Americans feel about the press is Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 satire “Scoop.” Based on Waugh’s stint as a journalist in Abyssinia, “Scoop” follows the accidental journalistic adventure of William Boot, an aspiring country gentleman who, through a series of ridiculous misunderstandings, winds up being hired by a London newspaper to cover political unrest in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia.
Ranked by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century and by Robert McCrum of the Guardian as the 60th best novel written in English, “Scoop” is, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “Waugh at the mid-season point of his perfect pitch; youthful and limber and light as a feather.” Waugh biographer David Wykes says it “radiates enjoyment and happiness” — tonally, then, it is quite different from the despairing visions that dominate today’s reading lists. But the novel’s depiction of an insular, gullible and sometime dishonest press will strike a chord with many readers in the Age of Trump — or in the Age of the Anti-Trump Media.
For one thing, the novel’s London press is detached from life outside of the city. The view Boot’s editor has of rural life reads like a parody of the American press corps’ unfamiliarity with rural America: “His knowledge of rural life was meagre. … there was something unEnglish and not quite right about ‘the country’, with its solitude and self-sufficiency, its bloody recreations, its darkness and silence and sudden, inexplicable noises; the kind of place where you never knew from one minute to the next that you might not be tossed by a bull or pitch-forked by a yokel or rolled over and broken up by a pack of hounds.”
The spirit of Salter inspires this description from a September article in U.S. News of (to use the article’s own phrase) “America’s hinterlands”: “Drive an hour or two outside of any major U.S. city … and campaign signs for Trump dominate the countryside: nestled in soybean fields and thick woods; beside two-lane highways and shotgun houses.” Trump “has rural voters flocking to [his] campaign like birds to a freshly-sown cornfield.” Listen closely and you may hear “Dueling Banjos.”
This insularity is also evident in “Scoop” from the lack of variety among the newspapers. The rival outlets are virtually indistinguishable: the Daily Beast (yes, the source of the website’s name) is owned by Lord Copper; the Daily Brute is owned by Lord Zinc. The names imply superficial difference but substantial uniformity.
The uniformity of our own press is one reason Trump’s victory was so much of a surprise. As Nate Silver recently said, “the conditions of political journalism are poor for crowd wisdom and ripe for groupthink,” so “the reporting was much more certain of Clinton’s chances than it should have been based on the polls.”
In Ishmaelia, this uniformity also manifests itself in a herd mentality that makes the foreign correspondents easy to manipulate. The nation’s minister of information, working on behalf of Russians eager to stage a coup, dupes them all into leaving the capital and venturing deep into the country’s interior, to a village that doesn’t exist. Once the city is free of journalists, the rebels overthrow the government without drawing attention. (There is, though, one reporter who stays in the city: Boot, who’s too new to the game to follow his more experienced peers, and as a result scores a scoop that makes him famous.)
Any administration would be happy to work with a press corps that is so easily manipulated. The European reporters in Ishmaelia remind me of how Obama administration communications adviser Ben Rhodes described the press. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old,” Rhodes told essayist David Samuels. “They literally know nothing” about national security. And so the administration was able to sell its Iran deal by leading reporters into, in Rhodes’s words, “an echo chamber” of sources “that validated what we had given them to say.”
The most salient connection between the novel and today’s skepticism of the media is what Waugh calls “the innuendo and intricate misrepresentations, the luscious, detailed inventions that composed contemporary history” — a beautiful, though less hashtaggable, description of what we lazily refer to as “fake news.” The papers in “Scoop” seek to convey a specific partisan perspective on the civil war in Ishmaelia, and they frame their stories to support that limited narrative. When Lord Copper sends Boot off, he tells him precisely how the war should proceed in his reporting: “A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colorful entry into the capital. That is the Beast Policy for the war … We shall expect the first victory about the middle of July.” Boot is not there to report news so much as to complete a prefabricated story line.
With these obligations in mind, many of the novel’s journalists are only too happy to make up news — a scoop is a scoop, regardless of its truth. There is the legendary journalist Wenlock Jakes, whose phony eyewitness accounts of a revolution that wasn’t happening, in a country he wasn’t in, were so alarming that they eventually caused an actual revolution. “There’s the power of the press for you,” one character concludes.
When one correspondent files an obviously false report about a Russian agent, the other journalists nonetheless feel compelled to “find a red agent” so they don’t lose face. (The prominent role of Russian agents is another echo we hear today.) A journalist who has taken Boot under his wing explains that knowing about the mistake would only shake “public confidence in the Press. Besides, it looks as if we weren’t doing our job properly.” Although the false story is killed, its damage is real: When Boot receives reliable information about an actual Russian plot which, as he puts it, “really is news,” his mentor explains that true or not, it’s too late to be news. “Russian agents are off the menu, old boy.” The fake news makes the real news implausible and unfit to print.
Little surprise, then, that when an aspiring journalist asks him whether “inventing imaginary news” is good training, Boot replies, “None better.”
You might say that it’s best to take Waugh’s satire seriously, not literally. The correspondence between the novel’s foreign press corps and America’s political reporters, while imperfect, is instructive. I doubt members of the mainstream press make stories up, but they are certainly amenable to scoops that fit their story lines, which makes them vulnerable to sloppy reporting. Trump-era media outlets have, for example, released un-vetted dossiers, incorrectly claimed that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was removed from the Oval Office, irresponsibly suggested Trump’s energy secretary didn’t understand his job, and generally stoked what Mollie Hemingway calls “a full-blown Red Scare conspiracy theory.” These mistakes made in the effort to hold Trump accountable inspire skepticism — some of it extreme, to be sure, but some of it reasonable. And the whole mess is exacerbated by Twitter, which spreads misreported information faster than ever; the corrections are never retweeted as much.
The press plays an important role in a free society, and journalists must challenge the president when he lies about, for example, being wire-tapped. It is too much to call our major news outlets enemies of the American people. But placing excessive faith in media is as dangerous as blindly trusting the government: Both deserve skepticism and scrutiny. If, as the New York Times declares, “The truth is more important now than ever,” it is also important to never assume that the press has the monopoly the truth. The press gets stories wrong: that’s understandable and forgivable. When the press warns that our freedoms will fade in a warm orange glow without them, the disparity between its self-aggrandizing claims and its frequently shabby performance becomes more striking.
A moment in “Scoop” dramatizes this disparity. At an emergency meeting of the Foreign Press Association to protest restrictions imposed by the government, the serious business “gravely affecting our professional status” is interrupted by a schoolyard fight between two photographers, each daring the other to throw the first punch. “Just give me a poke in the nose and see what you’ll get.”
To be sure, were he still alive, Waugh would not be wearing a red MAGA cap with his tweed coat. Always skeptical of America and modernity, Waugh might have seen Trump as the greatest emblem of what’s wrong with both. Indeed, as George Weigel has pointed out, there are elements of Trump in Waugh’s buffoonish Rex Mottram from “Brideshead Revisited.”
Nevertheless, “Scoop” accurately captures why so many Americans distrust the press and its power. As Hitchens put it, “Scoop endures because it is a novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps.” The reflection is familiar today.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated the wrong name for the protagonist of “Scoop.” It is William Boot, not Walter Boot.