Don't slip on the media's banana skins

Umberto Ecoargues that society is ill: the press is full of gossip, and only the rich want privacy

I haven't had time to read today's paper yet, but I might just as well not read it, because I saw the news on the telly last night: the deaths of famous people, natural catastrophes, hotbeds of war - it told me everything I need to know. I could have bought a newspaper to find out the exchange rates, but I have a free subscription to an international service on the Internet, which e-mails me daily the lira's value against all other currencies in the world, including those of Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.

So what could I possibly get from a newspaper that would make it worth reading as I ride on the train or drink my coffee? Gossip. We find ourselves faced with a cosmic phenomenon: gossip is becoming the number one interest of the written press. If you count the number of pages and columns devoted to Monicagate compared with Irangate, you'll see that gossip is the raw material of information today.

When there was a murder in the Vatican recently, the whole press corps moved into action even before it was known who had fired the shots. The papers were full of complicated, implausible explanations. The murder, we were told, involved a love triangle or a homosexual relationship. Or the colonel of the Swiss Guard was a Stasi spy. (Even if he were a Stasi spy, this would not explain the murder at all.) This is a big crisis for information.

Until recently, it seemed to me that certain problems concerned only the Italian press. However, the Clinton case has shown that this is not true. Paris-Match has shattered the myth that the French press is not concerned with the private life of its presidents. This is a big issue connected with the problem of democracy, because when the media's chief concern is gossip, it means that society is ill.

This illness was bound to infect the Internet. The sites that spread metropolitan legends may be more numerous than those that send me the exchange rates every morning. Anyone who has an intellectual profession today, for example, is besieged by the press with questions about the horrors that will usher in the year 2000. The story is going about that there were horrors at the first millennium, so the world's press is looking for the horrors of the second millennium. But when journalists tell you that there are Satanic sects, astral sacrifices, ufologists, you can tell them that they all already existed at the beginning of this century. People couldn't care less; they are thinking about booking New Year's Eve 1999 in Fiji or the Maldives. There are no horrors in store for the year 2000, and no one thinks there is except the media, which is doing its best to create them.

So gossip is one problem about the mass media. A second is privacy. There has never been so much talk about privacy as there is today. Italy has even set up an authority on privacy. Although I am not a sociologist, I shall venture to make some sociological remarks. (In any case, philosophers are allowed to talk about everything.) There has never been an age like ours, in which the masses did not desire privacy. People constantly make an exhibition of themselves in public, discussing their family problems on TV talk shows, rambling on about their sexual, financial and health problems on their mobile phone as they ride along in the train. Some even become serial killers to get into the papers.

Who wants privacy? Only a few rich people. Gianni Agnelli hasn't got a mobile, nor has Bill Clinton. The masses, for reasons I won't go into here, yearn for status symbols, throwing privacy to the winds. But the status symbol is no longer the indication of excellence, but of mediocrity, because it is sold at a low price to everyone (except the Rockefellers, Clintons and Yeltsins of this world).

What privacy can we still defend when no one wants it to be defended? Yet privacy is a value. I think the main problem is not how to defend the citizen's privacy, but how to educate the citizen to recognise privacy as a value. This is a problem for the press as well.

I should like to remind people in finance that it was Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo who first described the media's impact on the banking world. In order to ruin the banker Danglars, the Count of Monte Cristo alters a message coming over the wire; false news arrives and the stock market crashes; Danglars is ruined. So, the first lesson for national and international bankers is: don't trust the media.

I should like to end with a brief anecdote that I find instructive: we have all heard about the danger of slipping and falling after stepping on a banana peel. I think every language has an expression like, "he slipped on a banana peel". But I have read that it's not true that banana peel makes you slip. There is no physical-chemical element that makes a banana peel more slippery than a squashed tomato, a grape pip, or a pear skin. So why are we so sure that banana peels make us slip? Because in the first slapstick comedies, when a person had to slip, the alternative was dog mess on the pavement. Out of prudishness, the banana peel was invented as something particularly efficacious and visible. So all our language, our knowledge of the world, our way of walking along the street, is determined not by an electronic falsification put out today on the Internet, but by a deformation constructed by the media.

But where did I read this news? In a newspaper. Perhaps this should make us confident, in the end, of the information circuit's almost biological capacity to heal the very wounds it inflicts.

A longer version of this article first appeared in "The Journal Aspenia" (Rome), winter 1998 issue

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition