The Age of Unreason


THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – February 3, 1997

The Age of Unreason

Welcome to the factual free-for-all.

WHAT DID HE KNOW, and whendid he know it? During the late-modern era of
journal-ism and popular thought, which achieved its apotheosis in Watergate,
those were the salient questions. A consensus about facts prevailed, along
with a kind of common-sense faith that the accumulation of facts would yield
something like truth. The postmodern period began in the eighties, with the
American religious deliriums, in both fundamentalist-Christian and New Age
forms, end with the indulgence of the imaginary anecdotes of Ronald Reagan
and Tawana Brawley, it achieved its apotheosis in O. J. Simpson’s acquittal.
The salient questions in this new era tend to be epistemological: What do
you think you know, and why do you think you know it?

Consider the major news stories of the last year.
We don’t know who
was responsible for the epidemic of black-church arson, or even if there
was an epidemic. We don’t know why T.W.A. Flight 800 blew up. We don’t
know who planted the pipe bomb at the Olympics in Atlanta. The biggest news
stories de-generate into contentious unsolved mysteries, each an argument
against the efficacy of facts and the possibility of truth. Again and again,
facts—arson, plane crash, bomb—are supplanted by controversies
over how the stories were reported and who believes which versions of reality.
We are left with proliferating parallel universes. So Representative Maxine
Waters suspects that the C.I.A. was behind the crack trade in South Central
Los Angeles; Pierre Salinger suspects that Flight 800 was hit by an American
missile; and Dan Burton, the new chair-man of the House Government Reform
and Oversight Committee, suspects that Vincent Foster didn’t really
kill himself in the park where his body was found— make that “found.” Where
there’s a fact vacuum, pseudo facts, opinion, and out-right fantasy
come rushing in. When the White House earlier this month issued a book-length
report on allegations of wrongdoing by the Clintons and Clintonites, the
point was not to refute the substance of the charges but to analyze how spurious
charges filter from the mar-gins into the élite press, frequently
via the Internet—more epistemology.

Of course, Americans are supposed to mistrust élite authority and
to believe that every citizen is entitled, above all, to his or her own opinion.
Until the late nineteenth century, moreover, that populist doctrine accorded
with the way information flowed: the “media” were scattered and
local. Then the steady march toward centralization gradually made information
and opinion the province of mass-circulation magazines, wire services, radio,
and, ultimately, networks and national newspapers. For better and for worse,
the American journalistic century devolved from the muckraker to the pundit
to the anchorman—Steffens
to Lippmann to Cronkite. But the old native antipathy to-ward elite authority
was never rooted out, and after getting amped up during the late sixties
and the seventies it is driving today’s trans-ideological, my-facts-are-as-
good-as-your-facts skepticism.

Sometimes the skepticism is justified. Even science
often seems irresolute, arbitrary. During the last election campaign, polling
was way off the mark the final New York Times/CBS News survey before the
election overestimated Pres-ident Clinton’s margin by a hundred per cent. In December, the
four big television networks declared that they no longer trust the accuracy
of the Nielsen ratings, which are the foundation of the entire TV business.
And a federal commission discovered that inflation had been inaccurately
measured for years, yet it could only approximate by how much the rate was
being overstated—maybe thirty per cent a year, maybe sixty per cent,
maybe somewhere in between. If a technical story is scary enough, there’s
a good chance that it will be published with its premises essentially unchecked;
and, the
scarier it is, the greater is the chance of its being picked up widely.

The first great parental panic of the postmodern
age was missing children— a
putative rash of kidnappings by pedophiles and killers. After the murders
of twenty-three black children in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, and, later
in 1981, the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh, in Florida, magazines,
newspapers, and broadcasters began asserting routinely that many thousands
of American children were being snatched by strangers each year.

Missing children quickly became a movie-of-the-week
social issue. The Reagan Ad-ministration established the National Center
for Missing and Exploited Children. Children’s faces appeared on
milk cartons. The annual number of kidnappings was by this time pegged
in the media at twenty thousand, or fifty thousand, or, sometimes, even
a hundred thousand.

In 1984, I was a writer at Time, working on a missing-children
story. I did some simple arithmetic. If the low-end national figure was
true, it meant that in New York City alone a dozen children per week were
disappearing. It seemed improbable to me that in a city with two tabloid
dailies such a story had escaped notice. I called half a dozen urban police
departments around the country, more or less at random, and asked each
one how many cases it had had in the previous year of children abducted
by strangers. One here, none there, a couple in the next place. By extrapolation,
it seemed clear that the correct national number was possibly in the hundreds,
certainly not in the thousands, let alone in the tens of thousands. My
editor, however, declined to go ahead with such a wildly skeptical story
by a nonexpert—a
story that he seemed to think would have looked niggling and callous. (It
turned out that the figure of fifty thou-sand had been invented by Adam Walsh’s
father in the weeks following his son’s death; according to the current
Wash-ington Monthly, Walsh has since said that the number was a “guesstimate.”)

Time also figured in that decade’s other great social panic, cocaine
use. One particular cocaine factoid cropped up repeat-edly in the mid-eighties—the
assertion that every day five thousand Americans were trying cocaine for
the first time. In 1987, it had been among the official data presented
at a meeting of the National In-stitute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Then, in
1988, an article in Science on drug-abuse statistics attempted to track
down the source of the five-thousand-new-coke users-a-day number. Science
reported that, “according to the best recollection of the writer
who compiled these data for NIDA,” the statistic had appeared in
1984 and was based on five hundred calls to a New Jersey cocaine hot line.
But, in exposing the factoid as squishy, Science seems to have got the
provenance wrong. The statistic first appeared, I believe, in an April,
1983, cover story in Time. I wrote the story and I invented—no, constructed—the
statistic: taking a credible 1982 estimate of Americans who had used cocaine
and subtracting from it the comparable 1980 estimate, I divided that number
by seven hundred and thirty (three hundred and sixty-five days times two)
and arrived at . . . about five thousand new users a day.It may have been
true, or anyway true-ish, but its genesis bears out Science’s
finding that “many of the numbers are soft.”

No wonder the idea of truth seems so slippery just
now. If good faith and cool heads can let facts go astray, what happens
when more tendentious or paranoid versions of reality leach into the mainstream?
We’re perpetually
warned about the con-temporary rise of cynicism, but a parallel American
contagion, often infecting the same citizens, is credulity. The postmodern
cynic cum naïf mistrusts the govern-ment, the media, and the other
elites even as he recklessly embraces this or that line of grassroots make-believe.
You believe that a
majority of women were sexually abused as children? You believe that Ben
Franklin was an anti-Semitic propagandist? You believe that you have seen
a documentary videotape of government doctors performing an autopsy on
a captured extraterrestrial? Whatever.

THIS laissez-faire ultra-populism finds its per-fect
medium in the Internet. Not only is every citizen en-titled to his or her
opinion but he or she is entitled to deliver it instantaneously, studded
with chunks of fake infor-mation, to the whole world. With a computer and
a phone line, anyone can become his own publisher/commentator/ reporter/anchor,
dispatching to every-one everywhere credible-looking opin-ions, facts,
and “facts” via the Internet.
On the World Wide Web, for instance, the site at contains
dozens of dense, competently written reports on subjects as various as the
Hale-Bopp comet, AIDS, and T.W.A. Flight 800, and its frequently updated
pages look as professional as those of brand-name news-media sites; the articles
assert, however, that the comet may be traveling alongside “a gigantic
space-craft,” that H.I.V. grew out of a “U.S. biowarfare program,” and
that Flight 800 was brought down by “a rift in the space-time continuum.” Thanks
to the Web, amateurism and spuriousness no longer need look amateurish or
spurious. If so-society’s susceptibility to misinformation is like
AIDS then Web sites and Internet news groups and electronic bulletin boards—a
vast, thrilling, promiscuous commingling of facts with fabrications—could
be its bathhouses.

“You see, I’m not a person who looks into the Internet,” Pierre
Salinger assured me last month. Salinger was for most of the last two decades
a senior ABC News correspondent and investigative reporter and then, until
1995, vice-chairman of the P.R. firm Burson-Marsteller. But the Net and its
wide-open marketplace of ideas and information remained alien territory to

Sometime last fall, he says, he was given a document
by “a top intelligence
agent in France, a guy who’s been a fantastic adviser to me.” The
document began, “TWA flight 800 was shot down by a U.S. Navy Aegis
missile fired from a guided missile ship which was in area W-105 about 30
miles from where TWA 800 exploded. W-105 is a Warning Area off the southeast
coast of Long Island and is used for military operations including missile
firing.” It continued for five hundred more words thick with knowledgeable-sounding
analysis and technical detail. And so, on November 7th, in a lecture-circuit
speech in Cannes to members of an airline-industry association, Salinger
declared unequivocally but without elaboration that Flight 800 had been shot
down by a Navy missile, and that the United States government was covering
up the truth.

Ron Dunsky, a CNN producer who was assigned full
time to the Flight 800 story, reached Salinger late that night. “He was awake, and he was very excited
by the information he had, and I asked him to read me the document,” Dunsky
recalls. “I recognized it immediately. I pulled out my document, and
I went over it paragraph by paragraph. He said, ‘That’s it! That’s
the document! Where did you get it?”’ CNN had got it as a fax
almost two months earlier, and had then found virtual clones all over the
Internet; the original was the speculative E-mail scenario of a retired airline
pilot in Florida.

When Salinger finally looked into the postings on
the Internet, he was im-pressed to find “forty pages of material” on Flight 800. To Salinger,
the Net postings were encouragement to stick to his guns. Dunsky and his
colleagues at CNN had nearly the opposite reaction. “We were getting
annoyed at the persistence of this rumor out there,” Dunsky told me
recently. “It was almost like this parallel universe.” Certainly
the logic and the language of Salinger’s document are typical of on-line
paranoia: “Notice that the FBI is always standing beside or behind
Mr. Francis”—Bob Francis, a spokesman for the National Transportation
Safety Board— “and it would appear that his job is to make sure
that nothing is said that would give away ‘ THE BIG SECRET!’ ”

Last summer’s series in the San Jose Mercury News on the links between
the C.I.A. and Nicaraguan cocaine wholesalers is a very different case. The
newspaper story was extensively reported and was probably true in many of
its basic facts— that is, some Contras were probably involved in the
cocaine trade, and people on the C.I.A. payroll probably looked the other
way. As with Salinger, however, it posited an unholy federal conspiracy.
And, as with Flight 800 fabulism, the story swelled with populist afffirmation
while circulating via the Internet and talk radio, especially among black
Americans. In that parallel universe, where rumors of fantastic plots by
government (a satanic Ronald Wilson Reagan—six letters, six letters,
six letters—had crack invented as a genocidal weapon against blacks)
are widely credited, a crack- dealing C.I.A. can seem not just plausible
but obvious.

Of course, counter-realities flourish in Malibu
as well as in Compton. Oliver Stone, as both a director (“JFK,” “Nixon”) and, lately,
a producer (“The People vs. Larry Flynt”), has spent as much
time as anybody alive fending off charges that he twists facts. He is still
pained by the intense criticism—the factual criticism, not the film
criticism—that he gets for his historical movies. “I raised questions
in ‘JFK,’ “ he told me recently. “The movie never
said we had the answers. It deconstructed history, if you will. The Warren
Commission is the myth, my movie was counter-mythology. We’re not allowing
for dissident thought.”

We aren’t? With the Internet, the Oliver Stones of the world now have
their own homeland. They may be subjected to an extra dose of scrutiny, but
that is the price of being a dissi-dent. Unorthodoxy isn’t supposed
to get a free pass. And, as we gear up to live in a hyper-democratic media
world crawling with contagious false-hoods, society will need a robust in-formation
immune system.

It looks as if we might be developing one. The Pierre
Salinger misadventure sounds like a parable about our vulnerability to
pseudo facts, but it contained a self-correcting happy
ending. In the following days, every relevant agency and expert dismissed
Salinger’s story, and there were no takers among the rest of the old
media—not even the New York Post. Nor is the affair an indictment of
the new media; mostly what it reveals is one cocky old-media cowboy’s
cluelessness about the new frontier of the Internet.

That once-untamed territory is being rapidly civilized. The mountain-man
and homesteading eras have passed, and sheriffs and schoolmarms have come
to impose law and order. On the twenty-first-century Internet, as in the
nineteenth-century American West, the mavericks and cranks drawn to the frontier
will not be wiped out, and their romantic sensibility will inform the spirit
of the place, but the rude settlements and wild behavior are being overshadowed
by more traditional, trustworthy modes. Each year on the Net is equal to
about a decade in nineteenth-century-frontier terms: the rise of Internet
news groups and bulletin boards is analogous to the half century after Lewis
and Clark; the beginning of the World Wide Web, in the early nineties, can
be compared to the discovery of gold in California; and the present cyber-moment
is equivalent to, say, 1880.

As far as the ongoing spew of digital information
is concerned, certain brand names, some familiar but some strictly new-media,
are coming to be seen as re-liable. Americans may temperamentally resist
following orders from headquarters, but they still have a weak spot for
experts. Slate, the Microsoft webzine, just inaugurated “The Tangled Web,” a section devoted to policing
on-line conspiracy-mongers. Brooke Shelby Biggs, a media critic for HotWired;
an Internet epicenter of don’t-fence-me-in libertarianism, posted a
commentary last month pining “for a filter that can help the public
separate the bunk. . . from mostly accurate news sources.”

After four years of unchallenged legitimacy, the
bogus missing-children statistics were exposed, by a Denver Post series
that won a Pulitzer Prize. In the academy, the cachet of the multiple-truth
post-modernists seems to have peaked around 1994. The C.I.A.-Contra crack
story was overplayed, but, again, the immune system responded: “EVIDENCE IS LACKING
OF ALLEGED PLOT,” a Washington Post headline declared six weeks after
the Mercury News series ran. Even Oliver Stone said that he found the alleged
conspiracy unbelievable. Since Disney had just bought the film rights to
the C.I.A.-Contra crack articles, I half-teasingly asked Stone, whose “Nixon” was
re-leased by Disney, whether he would like to work on the project. “No,
I wouldn’t touch that one,” he said quickly. “I started
a script about that back in the eighties, called ‘Contra.’ But
it’s very tough for me to do another contemporary political movie.
Whatever I do is held up to ridicule going in.” He paused, then added, “That’s
a form of censorship, isn’t it?”

Earlier this month, Stone took a light one-two punch
from the Northeastern élite:
first, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., attacked him during a discussion at the annual
meeting of the American Historical Association, in New York; then ABC’s
World News Tonight broadcast a report disparaging the accu-racy of “The
People vs. Larry Flynt.” “Schlesinger talked about ‘the
facts,’ and kept saying, ‘Facts are facts,’ “ Stone
told me. “Peter Jennings leads with a frown and a sneer, and then they
get me on the same ‘What are the facts?’ ”

Literalism can be a drag, and one would certainly
rather watch Oliver Stone movies than Arthur Schlesinger,Jr., movies. But,
unpleasant though it can be for artists to have their work fact- checked
in public, the scrutiny of Stone’s counter-histories may be a measure of cultural health. Society’s
intellectual antibodies are responding.

And when those who are criticized by the establishment
for factual sloppiness and distortion declare that they, too, are victims
of factual sloppiness and distortion, they are in effect recommitting themselves
to the ideals of accuracy and a common truth. “There was a tremendous amount of misrepresentation
about what the movie ‘JFK’ said,” Stone complained. “It
was shocking to me. Ninety per cent of the time, the press quotes me out
of con-text.” Last September, during a lecture at Southern Methodist
University, a distinguished journalist brought down the house when he deplored
the debased standards of the mainstream news media, charging that they were “all
becoming tabloids.” The speaker was Pierre Salinger. ©