I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. Today there is a proliferation of information everywhere. You can watch the news both on television and online in a multitude of channels. You can read about what is going on around the world from the lives of celebrities to the actions of political leaders in almost every place. You see magazines at airports, cell phone updates ding every minute, and every article in print or online is clamoring for our attention. Allegedly, the most read articles online either have a heading for a top 10 list or a “click here and you won’t believe what happens next” statement. There is nothing new under the sun and even though today we have the internet in Chesterton’s day it was the same thing.
Heresy exposed: Drab sensationalism
Summary of Chapter:
Chesterton was a newspaper writer and so he experienced first hand this heresy he exposes. In his time the newspapers were the main source of information and he quipped once that “Journalism largely consists in saying “Lord Jones is dead” to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” Today we have the supermarket trashy tabloids (which is basically everything now) but then it was the yellow press. It was and is a type of journalism that uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers while exaggerating news events, reporting scandal both real and fabricated, and/or other sorts of sensationalism.
This journalism does not merely fail to exaggerate life–it positively underrates it; and it has to do so because it is intended for the faint and languid recreation of men whom the fierceness of modern life has fatigued. This press is not the yellow press at all; it is the drab press.
What made that kind of journalism stand out in its day was the typesetting. They used giant letters and shocking statements much like what the famous black and white Weekly World News used to do. However, it is the content that Chesterton addresses, the typesetting is not shocking at all an din fact is dull.
A general vague idea that in spite of all this, our yellow press is sensational, arises from such external accidents as large type or lurid headlines. It is quite true that these editors print everything they possibly can in large capital letters. But they do this, not because it is startling, but because it is soothing. To people wholly weary or partly drunk in a dimly lighted train, it is a simplification and a comfort to have things presented in this vast and obvious manner. The editors use this gigantic alphabet in dealing with their readers, for exactly the same reason that parents and governesses use a similar gigantic alphabet in teaching children to spell. The nursery authorities do not use an A as big as a horseshoe in order to make the child jump; on the contrary, they use it to put the child at his ease, to make things smoother and more evident.
When there is real news or real reporting there is a danger or being attacked. The brave reporters who broke the Watergate scandal were terrified but still reported, reports from war torn countries come at a great cost, and there are whistle blowers who call attention to real issues. However, there is a safe sort of sensationalism that has no danger.
Real sensationalism, of which I happen to be very fond, may be either moral or immoral. But even when it is most immoral, it requires moral courage. For it is one of the most dangerous things on earth genuinely to surprise anybody. If you make any sentient creature jump, you render it by no means improbable that it will jump on you. But the leaders of this movement have no moral courage or immoral courage; their whole method consists in saying, with large and elaborate emphasis, the things which everybody else says casually, and without remembering what they have said.
Using this false sensationalism there does not have to be real work, if people are riled up. Instead, one can report on the reaction. The statement that ‘any publicity is good publicity’ makes more and more sense when publicity equates with sales.
Thus was accidentally discovered (like the steam-engine) the great journalistic maxim–that if an editor can only make people angry enough, they will write half his newspaper for him for nothing.
The big issue is that this it is not about selling papers but a mindset of “being on the right side of history’. Those who change the world do not worry about what the world thinks – just look at all the brave individuals who have done so from Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King jr. and many others. They did not just worry to accommodate a trend but had a greater thought. The reason why this happens is that trends focus on the aggregate but individuals have free will. Groups of people are studied and are predictable however groups do not change things; individuals do. The newspaper writers of his day and especially those of the Yellow school of thought actually tried to guess the trends but did not looks at the individuals.
They did not realize the two great facts–first, that in the attempt to be everything the first and most difficult step is to be something; second, that the moment a man is something, he is essentially defying everything. The lower animals, say the men of science, fought their way up with a blind selfishness. If this be so, the only real moral of it is that our unselfishness, if it is to triumph, must be equally blind. The mammoth did not put his head on one side and wonder whether mammoths were a little out of date. Mammoths were at least as much up to date as that individual mammoth could make them. The great elk did not say, “Cloven hoofs are very much worn now.” He polished his own weapons for his own use. But in the reasoning animal there has arisen a more horrible danger, that he may fail through perceiving his own failure. When modern sociologists talk of the necessity of accommodating one’s self to the trend of the time, they forget that the trend of the time at its best consists entirely of people who will not accommodate themselves to anything. At its worst it consists of many millions of frightened creatures all accommodating themselves to a trend that is not there.
The real issue is where there is more than one person tries to guess the trend and instead just is a group of people becoming a sounding board for each other – making money off of the manufactured guessing of trends that they make.
The only question now is how much longer the fiction will endure that journalists of this order represent public opinion. It may be doubted whether any honest and serious Tariff Reformer would for a moment maintain that there was any majority for Tariff Reform in the country comparable to the ludicrous preponderance which money has given it among the great dailies. The only inference is that for purposes of real public opinion the press is now a mere plutocratic oligarchy.
They say that wherever the United Kingdom is we will be there in 20 years. Chesterton wrote that essay before World War 1 and what he saw is England is now fully entrenched here. People complain about media bias, and while it exists fully and has been documented and confirmed even by the media, that bias is not the real problem. Bias exists and has existed since the dawn of writing. The real problem is that it is just scared storytellers reporting scary stories to follow a trend that is imaginary in order to make money. Think of it this way, anyone in the media wants people to watch them, as that is how they get their money. They choose what to show depending on what they think people will watch. Using that aggregate leads to group think where a dead lion can be reported more than the whistleblowing of illegal selling of human babies bodies because they think it would be catchier and more emotional.
The manufacturing of outrage is an interesting business, but the outrage must be contained and controlled because if people are truly outraged they might actually attack those who report for taking so long to let them know (or by those who were reported on). It takes a courageous person to actually tell the truth and face the consequences, a coward tells people what they want to hear, a Yellow coward tells people a compelling imaginary narrative and then threatens them if they do not they will be on the wrong side of history. We need to be aware of the too compelling narrative and if we are writers/storytellers not to be everything for everyone but for something and defy everything.