After the Deluge:Things I've Learned from Writing about a Rumor

1) Sometimes people just refuse to actually read what you write or assume you’re writing something they’d like to read.

For instance Jonah Goldberg. “Ron Rosenbaum says he knows about a some enormous sex scandal…” Not exactly. I wrote that I heard from a DC media insider that his fellow insiders thought they knew about such a scandal. There’s a difference. I know what they think they know. I don’t know it for a fact myself. But the fact they think they know such a potentially devastating matter is significant


But yes, I was writing about a rumor and I think that in some cases, not all, this can be part of legitimate media criticism. I was writing about the fact a DC media insider told me he and his colleagues believe the LA Times has been sitting on a major presidential campaign sex scandal. The point was: people who write about politics can be influenced by what they think is about to be forthcoming and it can skew their coverage in a way that they can’t or won’t share with their readers. One person from the LATimes says he knows of no such story, that the paper of course runs down all kinds of leads and rumors, but doesn’t have any such story “in the can” as another DC insider who’s heard the rumor put it. But that doesn’t affect the fact that DC insiders may believe there’s a story out there, maybe about to break.

2) You can’t not write something you think worth writing–like about the way coverage of a presidential campaign can be skewed by rumors that sway insiders (see above) just because some people are going to misinterpret it, read it carelessly, use it to confirm their hatred of the media for being either “part of the Clinton smear machine” or “part of the Republican smear machine” or because other people are going to turn it into a a giant guessing game.


3)The “Depth Charge” effect. This post by Slate‘s Mickey Kaus argues for the salutary value of bringing things to the surface to be examined before the nominations are locked in:

“Depth Charge: Jonah Goldberg reports that his email box is filling up with theories about stories that would fit the bill of a “potentially devastating sexual scandal involving a leading Presidential candidate” that Ron Rosenbaum hears the LAT is sitting on. Rosenbaum’s post seems to be functioning as a sort of depth charge that threatens to bring all the various rumored scandals about all the candidates to the surface. It would be funny if they all turned out to be true! And then the initial rumor Rosenbaum wrote about–that the LAT is sitting on something–turned out to be not true! … I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m just saying that would be funny. … In any case, the campaign certainly needed a depth charge. … Let all the scandals that lurk in the mud hatch out. … [What’s to stop some blogger from doing this in every campaign?–ed Nothin’. I assume depth-charging will become a permanent feature of electoral politics. They tell me the Internet has changed things! Is there a problem? The true rumors will be confirmed and the phony rumors won’t be confirmed. But it will be harder to suppress the former. Isn’t the purpose of primary campaigns to find out everything about the candidates before they are nominated?]


4)Rumors can be worth writing about because they can tell us something about the psyche of the nation, its unconscious, its id. (And the psyche of the media who shape the psyche of the nation). .

I’d argue the study of rumors can be illuminating in the study of history and historical explanation. In researching my book, Explaining Hitler (see panel on the left) I spent some time analyzing why the rumor (false) that Hitler had “Jewish blood” was so appealing to some as an “explanation” for his exterminationist anti-semitism. (Because it allowed people to in a twisted way to blame the Jews, blame the victims, for Hitler with superficial, bogus psychologizing–as in he wanted to kill exterminate “the Jew within” himself

5) Thus: a rumor can be a Rorschach blot: people project onto it their own inner fantasies. Which means you can learn something about the national psyche you wouldn’t be otherwise able to access by studying rumors and the responses to them.

6) Rumors can be a spur to investigative reporting.

Thus in a recent Slate column I made a conscientious effort to separate a disturbing paranoid rumor (“Bush is plotting a coup to cancel the elections”) from a disturbing truth (the reality of emergency post attack “National Security Presidential Directive 51″ and the need to subject it to close scrutiny”.


7)) The acknowledgment of the role of rumors can be the sign of a healthy democracy.

Here’s an excerpt from a thoughtful letter my friend the writer and student of history, David Samuels whose work appears frequently in Harper’s and The Atlantic wrote me:

“I agree that rumors are a wormhole into the collective psyche. I’d
add — without wanting to push my pseudo-Freudian point TOO far —
that the surfacing and analysis of rumors is actually an important
sign of a healthy press, and that the repression of rumors (often the
precursors to news; all news is preceded by rumors) is usually a sign
that something is wrong with the press, and creates an opening for
purveyors of dangerous alternate realities. Taken too far, of course,
you end up with the Italian press, which consists, as far as my bad
Italian lets me figure, of drunk, crazy people spouting slanderous,
inane and entirely contradictory conspiracy theories from morning to

Today, in part because of the war on terror, and the ideological
rigidity that has made writing such a depressing chore, I think that
we are operating in a particularly weird landscape where the
“official story” of both the right and the left diverges from fact in
so many places that people are forced to construct a manageable
reality by walling off large areas of inconvenience from their ken.”


But the real threat to the press, he adds, are court decisions which cause over lawyered publishers to be too cautious about what they can publish:

“Another point I’d make is that the current repressive atmosphere is also backed by a sea-change in the legal climate in which reporting takes place. Where you
could once count on publicity-hungry publishers and editors spoiling
for a fight with the government or big corporations, we now have a
corporate-owned media with corporate lawyers who consciously and
subconsciously identify their own interests with those of their
parent corporations. As a result, there has been very limited
resistance to the ongoing criminalization of what used to be normal
reporting. I think the beginning here was the Food Lion case, where
the ABC reporters were fined millions of dollars for minor lies on an
application to work at a supermarket chain in order to film how the
company was deliberately dressing up rotten meat for sale and
endangering the health of its customers. Reporters today are caught
between lawsuit-happy corporations, who perceive that they can win
suits against journalists, an increasingly secretive government that
forces reporters to turn over their notes, and employers who see
themselves as corporations and would rather avoid the threat of a
lawsuit. One reason why so little investigative reporting takes place
these days is that lawyers simply won’t let it happen.


Which brings me to point number

8) It’s possible, but rare to have a reasoned discussion about legitimate media issues arising from, or provoked by, a rumor regardless of whether the rumor is true. The key thing, to repeat myself, is that media insiders may believe it true and allow it to affect their coverage. That was the point of my post.


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