Week 21 of the column, in which I perform a remarkable about-face on my attitude to print media, now that I am making some money from it. Lol jk – journalism is actually important. Stories are great, but there has to be facts.
When I left the newspaper industry three years ago, I thought we were heading into a brave new world. I had spent 12 years working as a subeditor in a regional paper, and saw how the digital revolution democratised communications and gave everyone a voice. I thought this was going to be great – everyone would be a citizen journalist, reporting live from global events, large and small; instead of having a small number of media outlets, we would have a chorus of unbiased, verifiable sources for our information.
The reality, of course, is slightly different. When you buy a newspaper, you are invested in it. You generally read it cover to cover, as you paid for it and are committed to it. You are exposed to things you would otherwise not see, opinions you might not like, ideas and information that you could otherwise miss. The commercial aspect of newspapers also meant that if they get things wrong, they get sued; there is accountability. The overall ethos of the paper you buy may reflect your world view, but you are still opening your mind to a variety of opinions, insights and facts.
On the internet we tend to only look at the things we like – this is anything from cat videos to celebrity nip slips. The more we hit that like button, the more the internet gives us what we want. It refuses to challenge us. In an age when we have the entire world at our fingertips, we seem more concerned with being entertained than informed. This was brought home to me when I asked a friend if he thought Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan still sing Unplayed Piano, the ballad they wrote in 2004 about Aung San Suu Kyi, now that she has been released from house arrest and seems intent on looking the other way while ethnic cleansing takes place in her country. I got a blank stare. Whatever about knowing the back catalogue of Rice and Hannigan, I thought he might have heard about a massacre that has left an estimated thousand dead. He had not. For all the time we spend on our phones, we seem a lot less connected to the world around us. The grim eventuality of this is currently being playing out across the Atlantic.
In 1938 Orson Welles decided to teach America a lesson. He felt they swallowed everything they heard on the radio a little too readily, and created The War Of The Worlds, a radio play that led many to believe that the planet was under attack from aliens. The Trump election campaign did something similar – it deceived people into believing they were under attack, that aliens were coming for them, and that only one man could save them. Trump said the media organisations that tried to hold him to account were fakes, and people believed him, not them. If there is a lesson there for us, it is that actual news matters more than ever.
Three years ago I picked up my redundancy cheque and headed off into my brave new world, where I believed news would be truly democratic. I was, as I am much of the time, dead wrong. Now I am seeing that newspapers matter, because facts matter. And I’m not just saying that because I get paid to write this, but because the bright lights of news media need to be kept on, for all our sakes.
The death of Harry Dean Stanton didn’t come as a surprise. At 91, there were periods of the last decade when he would pop up in a cameo and I would suddenly remember that he wasn’t actually dead. Like all great character actors, he disappeared into the roles he took. He was the go-to for the hangdog American everyman, and seemed to play a succession of people who had not-quite achieved the American dream. The film critic Roger Ebert once said that no film with Harry Dean Stanton can be altogether bad, although he later qualified this by adding that teen body swap comedy Dream A Little Dream, starring Coreys Haim and Feldman, was a clear violation of this rule.
His greatest role was in Paris Texas, where he played a drifter walking the roads of the southern states as a form of atonement. I loved the film from the first time I saw it as a troubled teenager, but it was only years later I could see that this was because it spoke to me. Being adopted, then central themes of family, abandonment and redemption all resonated in my teenage subconscious. As an adult, I love Paris Texas because I spend much of my time like Stanton’s character Travis, wondering if my family would be better off without me, if I should take to the highways and byways of Munster as penance for being a fairly dismal parent. But as this is Ireland, I probably wouldn’t get far before I got clipped by a passing SUV or drowned in a pothole.
A less notable death this year was that of Stanislav Petrov, aged 77. Although he passed away in May, news is only breaking now of his passing and of the minor incident in 1983 that saw him save the world. In the depths of the Second Cold War, Russian satellite warning system alerted authorities that a nuclear missile had been launched by the US, and was followed by several others, all headed for Russia. This was an act of war, and the Russians had to scramble to retaliate. Lt Col. Petrov, however, discerned that it was a false alarm, stood down the Russian weapons systems, and prevented what could well have been the end of civilization as we know it. It seems strange that one man had the presence of mind – and faith in humanity – to know that this was a malfunction. Despite all the technology teling him otherwise, Petrov knew that the computers were wrong: He saw information on a screen, and was able to discern that it was false. If only we all had this ability.
Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave an address to her nation yesterday. She condemned any human rights violations in her country, and previously said an iceberg of false information was being put forward about the situation. All she needs to do now is stick on a little red cap and claim there are good people on both sides, before promising to build a wall around the Rohingya, who the UN have said are victims of a military ethnic cleansing programme. Here in Ireland, people seem strangely on the fence. In a poll of 1,000 adults for Claire Byrne Live, 42% of people said they think the Myanmar leader’s award of the Freedom Of Dublin should be rescinded, 11% disagreed and 47% were unsure. Assuming the 11% were just massive fans of the song Unplayed Piano, it is still incredible that 47% were unsure how to feel about what is happening in Myanmar. If ever there was a case to be made for people to just pick up a paper and have a proper read of it, there it is.