On that October day in 1986, Paris glowed with happiness. A few hours off the plane from Canada, I walked in brilliant sunshine down the Avenue de l'Opera. Crowds filled the outdoor cafes, and clusters of young people sat on the steps of the Opera, talking, flirting, eating lunch, and enjoying the sun. A few metres away, a newsstand displayed the international edition of Newsweek. A coverline said, "Paris: City under Siege."
Terrorist bombs had in fact exploded some days earlier, but bombs appeared to be the last thing on the minds of the people around me. Clearly, this city, far from being under siege, was enjoying itself. The Newsweek coverline was closer to fantasy than reality. And 17 years later, it sticks in my memory as a graphic emblem of what journalists do with bad news: We magnify it until it replaces the truth.
William Thorsell, who edited The Globe and Mail in the 1990s, used to complain that "newspapers are about what went wrong in the world yesterday." He wanted his paper to publish a more thorough account of daily human life, and for various reasons newspapers have indeed moved in that direction. Meanwhile, TV has become the obsessive chronicler of disaster.
Watching television news this autumn, we might assume that Israel is greeting the Jewish New Year in a condition of national despondency. On CNN we see little except soldiers hunting terrorists, politicians driven to desperation by their Palestinian enemies, and paramedics trying to save the victims of bombing. But a visitor to Israel discovers that Israelis do what people do anywhere else -- work, study, pray, entertain themselves. They worry, of course, but their lives go on. And, perhaps because they are warmed by feelings of national unity, they are apparently happy. In a recent survey of about 7,000 Israelis, the national statistics bureau found that 83% say they are satisfied with their lives. (Roughly equivalent polls show figures of 45% among Canadians, 64% among Americans.) Haaretz newspaper, suspicious of the government figures, commissioned its own poll and came up with nearly the same result, 80%. Israel's afflictions are terrible, but not nearly as terrible as they appear on television.
Today most news from Iraq and Afghanistan concerns failure. Those who oppose American policy can enjoy, nearly every week, an account of some bungle, setback, or atrocity. To anyone with a sense of proportion, these calamities appear marginal when compared with the size of the American project and its astounding successes. But a sense of proportion is precisely what the news can't deliver. Today, watching and reading the reports, one would hardly know that 40-million or so human beings have recently been delivered from hideous oppression, or that the despotic governments of Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been placed, for the first time, on the defensive.
It is the unique ability of journalists to convert anything into bad news. In a real estate boom we announce that young people will probably never be able to buy houses, as their parents did; but when prices fall we call it a calamity and announce that many home owners have been ruined. When oil prices rise, we show how life has grown harder for everyone; but if they fall we worry that the petroleum industry will collapse. As for the poor Canadian dollar, it can't do anything right. If it sinks we all become poorer, but if it rises exports suffer. Either way, journalists create an atmosphere of melancholy. This consistency suggests that our style of thinking overwhelms our powers of observation.
The report that 170,000 objects were looted from the National Museum in Baghdad in April, while American military forces stood idly by, demonstrates how bad news overcomes prudence, common sense, and the skepticism that journalists are supposed to possess. The story was wrong, it was invented out of malevolence (by an Iraqi cultural bureaucrat angry at the U.S.), it was doubted by no one, and it quickly inspired many expert opinions, all wrong. Historians and archaeologists lined up to assess the damage and denounce those responsible. Professor Piotr Michalowski of the University of Michigan established the high-water-mark for gullibility when he said the looting was a disaster unparalleled in history, like the wiping out of the Uffizi, the Louvre, or all the museums of Washington "in one fell swoop." A few weeks later it developed that there were not 170,000 but 3,000 items missing, most of them shards of pottery. Among significant works, 50 were lost, or maybe 47. Eventually the bureaucrat responsible for the figure of 170,000 was saying that 33 pieces were unaccounted for.
This bizarre and revealing incident should appear in all journalism textbooks and remain engraved forever on the hearts of editors and news producers. But it seems likelier to be forgotten. When the startling truth emerged on June 9, the reporting of it was muffled, in the U.S. as elsewhere. Not one national American paper put it on the front page, and the Washington Post buried it on page 22. It was good news, therefore of little interest.