NAS has invited readers to submit reflections on older books. This open-ended series of postings aims to show that contemporary books are not the only books that can profit contemporary readers. Guidelines for essay submissions appear here.
Who hasn't heard of Ferguson, Missouri?
Not long ago, it was virtually unknown. I had lived in St. Louis for 17 years before I ever heard of it – and then only because my son started playing baseball with a group of fellow homeschoolers at a Christian church located there.
Now everyone knows about Ferguson, but most of what they “know” isn't true.
The wildly misreported events in this nearby community prompted me to return to one of my favorite novels and read it for the third or fourth time: Scoop, Evelyn Waugh's scathing attack on journalists and their penchant for distorting or fabricating the news, published in 1937.
Oddly enough, though I graduated with a degree in English back in the 1970s, I discovered Waugh long after college. I love all of his novels, especially A Handful of Dust and his magnificent war trilogy. His most celebrated work, Brideshead Revisited, is my least favorite. The Loved One, his only satire of American (as opposed to British) culture, missed its mark as a book but was made into a hysterical movie starring Robert Morse, Rod Steiger, and Jonathan Winters (in two madcap roles).
As someone who's made a living of sorts as a journalist for forty years, and as the son of two journalists with 100 years of experience between them, I find in Scoop much I recognize and detest about my profession.
It's the story of an inexperienced nature columnist named John Boot who is mistaken for another journalist with the same name and sent by the Beast, a large London newspaper, to cover growing unrest in the East African nation of Ishmaelia. Boot is surprised to learn that timeliness and originality are more highly prized by his colleagues and their editors than are truth and fairness. In a conference before Boot's departure, Beast publisher Lord Copper explains what's expected of him: "The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side, and a colourful entry into the capital. That is the Beast Policy for the war.... We shall expect the first victory about the middle of July."
Upon his arrival in Jacksonburg, the capital of Ishmaelia, Boot encounters a small army of reporters from rival newspapers, but no trace of unrest. A writer from a major wire service explains the media presence by recounting his editor's reaction to the so-called "crisis" in Ishmaelia. "I don't see anything in it myself," his boss had confessed to him when making the assignment, "but the other agencies are sending feature men, so we've go to do something."
Boot soon discovers that the reporters spend less time trying to develop legitimate leads than they do in studying their more aggressive or inventive colleagues for signs that the latter are on to something. They pay native servants to intercept each other's communications to and from their editorial offices back home in an effort to stay abreast of the latest slants. By way of illustrating the lengths to which his peers might go to corner the elusive scoop, a veteran newsman named Corker relates to the bewildered Boot the all-too-realistic story of the maverick Wenlock Jakes, the highest paid journalist in America:
Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn't know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window....
That day every special special man in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial pains, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny – and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution underway, just as Jakes had said. There's the power of the press for you.
A similar process playing itself out in Ishmaelia accelerates when an enterprising reporter scoops the others by alleging that a newly arrived railroad employee is actually a Soviet agent. When Boot discovers that there is no truth to the allegation, Corker points out that exposing the fraud would be considered unprofessional and that papers prefer not to print denials, even of their rivals' most blatant excesses. "Shakes public confidence in the press," he explains. "Besides it looks as if we weren't doing our jobs properly. It would be too easy if every time a chap got a scoop the rest of the bunch denied it." When Boot later confirms the existence of a real Soviet agent in Jacksonburg, he is apprised by Corker that the story, true or not, no longer has any news value.
Left alone in the capital when his sheep-like colleagues rush off en masse to search the countryside for a chimeric rebel stronghold, Boot inadvertently uncovers the real story – of Russian, German, and British interests vying through their various native proxies for control of Ishmaelia's vast mineral reserves. In addition to ensuring the success of the British-backed faction, his dispatches earn him instant celebrity in England, to which he returns thoroughly disillusioned with news reporting and determined to resume his nature column.
As in the fictional Jacksonburg, so too in the all-too-real Ferguson, where the media descended just like Jakes with a preconceived notion of how the story should go. Readership and viewership would be most increased, hidden agendas best advanced, by a narrative of brutal cop, innocent victim, and systemic racism – none of which played a part in the shooting, however much they threatened to overwhelm the truth in its aftermath.
The truth, for any reporter who cared or dared to tell it, was that there was no story, other than that same sad story that happens so often it ceases to be newsworthy: in the line of duty, a decent cop shot a thieving thug in self-defense.
Life has so often imitated Art since the publication of Scoop that its once preposterous scenario of news-creating-an-event has become commonplace. Indeed, Evelyn Waugh may prove to have been our last great satirist, for there is no room for exaggeration when our modern customs and institutions have all become parodies of their originals.
Duplantier is the author of Politickles: Limericks Lampooning the Lunatic Left. He has served as the national communications director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the editorial director of America's Future, and the editor of The New American and La Gazette des Acadiens. He is currently a ghostwriter for national trade associations.