Monday, August 17, 2009

The tale of the gnome

In the old days, when copy editors left newspaper one by one, instead of being pushed down a chute with a man holding a sledgehammer standing at the bottom, a decorum of departure was observed.

The chief of the copy desk or some other minor satrap delivered a few gracious remarks, small gifts were presented, the honoree made a short speech of reminiscence and thanks, and cake was cut and served. Occasionally, outliers from other news departments would wander over, especially after cake was announced.

At some copy desks, of which The Baltimore Sun’s was one, the farewell gifts included jocular items. As you might expect, such jocular gifts often carried with them a back story or personal association.

At one point in my tenure at The Sun, there was a copy editor on the desk whom a fellow editor referred to privately, because of his physical appearance and a disposition that it would be generous to describe as grumpy, as “the Garden Gnome.” The gnome departed, and so, in the fullness of time, did the other editor. When the latter editor retired, one of the farewell gifts was a plaster garden gnome.

The former editor was held in such low esteem and the latter in such affection that it became a tradition on the desk to present a garden gnome, the uglier the better, to each departing copy editor. It generally fell to the managers to acquire the damn things, either plaster or — even uglier — plastic.*

I suppose that many close-knit groups develop such rituals — append yours in a comment if you like.

But the tale of the gnome has a little moral: If you are disagreeable enough to your colleagues, you can expect to achieve a rude immortality.

*On the day I was dismissed, I harbored five garden gnomes in an office cabinet. The pending purge had been well telegraphed, but I had underestimated its scope. And I myself left cakeless and gnomeless.

Credulity and skepticism

Fans (I am one) of, the “searchable database of urban legends and myths, email hoaxes, computer virus warnings, and folklore,” can only marvel at the boundless credulity represented by the nonsense that Barbara and David Mikkelson painstakingly research and refute.

There is the patently false report, propagated by Betsey McCaughey and subsequently spreading faster than the swine flu virus, that a health care bill before Congress requires that senior citizens be given counseling on euthanasia every five years.

There is the Internet petition to President Obama protesting a Senate decision to grant illegal immigrants Social Security benefits. (The petition to President Obama is a repurposed version of a comparable petition to President George W. Bush from 2006.)

There is the image showing deplorably low grades and SAT scores on Sarah Palin’s high school report card — a fraud that demonstrates how easily images can be manipulated and falsified.

This proliferation of — let’s be frank about it — lies tells us something about ourselves:

People believe what they want to believe, crediting information that reinforces those beliefs and rejecting information that challenges those beliefs. Many of these beliefs are inextricably intertwined with people’s fears about the world and their place in it. Today’s intense anxieties about economic well-being leave people easily moved to share their fears, with demagogues standing by to exploit them.

If you fear that oppressive government regulations are going to endanger your freedoms and personal security, or that illegal immigrants are a threat to the nation, or that Sarah Palin is dangerously uninformed, you are liable to seize on any report that confirms your suspicions, however ludicrous and unsupported. (Before I go on, am I being clear to you that this is universal, and that the left, the right, and the center are equally credulous?)

And not just in politics. The range of rumors and legends that people are willing to entertain and spread abroad, and which the Mikkelsons explode, is astonishingly wide. Some examples:

Mussolini did not make the trains run on time in Italy.

Mariah Carey did not say, “When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean, I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”

It is not true — I may have readers who will find comfort in this — that a woman older than forty is likelier to be killed by a terrorist than to get married.

It was once thought that the job of journalism was to sort out the true from the false and enable the public to make informed decisions. Rumor and fabrication were left to the supermarket tabloids, so that credulous could be entertained and the informed amused by reports such as “Stroke victim falls in garden & is eaten by her Venus flytraps.”* But in a world in which, for example, Wikipediasts can insist that it doesn’t really matter than some of the information in the “free-content encyclopedia” is not accurate, and journalists can uncritically publish bogus information taken from it, it is not clear how much journalism takes its old responsibility seriously.

If I were designing a journalism curriculum, I would experiment with a course, Skepticism 101, in which the students would have to analyze press releases boasting unsupported claims, polls with unreliable samples, scientific studies with questionable methodology, statistics that don’t add up, rumors, and the other free-floating nonsense that is as much a part of the atmosphere as the polluted air we breathe.

* An actual Weekly World News headline.