If you have already watched all the episodes of The Newsroom and are looking for something equally funny, yet meaningful about journalism, I recommend turning to this 1938 novel. Evelyn Waugh, who had been a journalist himself and had reported from the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, wrote a satire about news journalism. Set in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia, it is the story of a rural garden and nature writer who gets mistaken for a hot-shot journalist and sent to report on a war which may or may not be happening. Nobody knows.
But that’s how the news are made. As one of the more seasoned journalists recounts on the boat to Ishmaelia:
‘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.
Well they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special 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 panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the press for you.’
This is what media criticism has to be like: insightful, sharp and witty. Although Waugh does not spare the owners of newspapers,
‘And what please,’ asked William, ‘is a news agency?’
Corker told him.
‘Then why do they want to send me?’
‘All the papers are sending specials.’
‘And all the papers have reports from three or four agencies?’
‘But if we all send the same thing it seems a waste.’
‘There would soon be a row if we did.’
‘But isn’t it very confusing if we all send different news?’
‘It gives them a choice. They all have different policies, so of course, they have to give different news.’
it becomes very obvious that the ultimate responsibility lies with lazy and sloppy journalists. Remember that before you go on your next rant about “mainstream media”, whatever that is supposed to be, just because you don’t like a particular story.
Of course, the problem has shifted since Waugh’s times. When in the inter-war years too many correspondents were sitting on top of each other in a bar in Africa, talking more to each other than to local sources, the problem today is that there are no correspondents in the country at all. Only when something happens will newspapers and TV stations drop in some parachute correspondents for a few days. They will have read the Wikipedia article on the way and their main source will be an overpaid taxi driver. – But then, if you don’t want to pay for your newspaper or at least for your favorite blog, you can’t really complain.