The best crossword clue in history was 39 and 43 across in the 5 November 1996 edition of the New York Times. The clue read: “Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper (!)”. The crossword was published, of course, on the US presidential election day. In conjunction with the obvious answers to the other clues which contributed letters to 39 across (like CAT for “black Halloween animal,”) most solvers were presented with the solution CLINTON ELECTED to 39 and 43 across.
Yet what makes this the best clue ever is that, with different answers to the other clues which fed into 39 across, the other option was possible too. Replace CAT with BAT, and you get the first letter of the alternative answer to 39 and 43 across: BOBDOLE ELECTED.
We are all predisposed to believing information which fits with our ideological preconceptions, and likewise, to disregarding information which does not. Almost every day, we subconsciously fill in our own ambiguous crossword clues with the answers we wish reflected reality. This is a weakness which a responsible and critical media would challenge, not play into. Unfortunately, as the spread of the Robbie Travers case last week demonstrates, this is still a major blind spot for much of the right-wing press.
If you’re unfamiliar with the saga, you’re one of the lucky ones. Travers is a law student at Edinburgh University, who has amassed a fairly significant following on Facebook for his polemical writings, which combine an underlying current of sympathy towards far-right populists with unnerving philosemitism, tied together with an intense impulse to exaggerate. (Travers calls himself a Blairite, but his politics are more like the worst caricature of Blairism on the far-left and far-right than genuine reflections of New Labour’s positions.) One such post, in which Travers claimed that to have been “accused of Islamophobia because I mocked Isis, and I’m being investigated on such a ground by my university,” went viral.
The story was quickly picked up by right-wing media outlets, including the Times, Daily Mail, and Fox News. Figures on the far-right, including the anti-Islam Ukip leadership candidate Anne Marie Waters, and the social media personality Mike Cernovich, seized on the story.
Yet the kicker, as you may have guessed, is that the story is almost completely bollocks. The University of Edinburgh says it would not consider bringing charges of misconduct against a student for mocking Isis. Instead, Travers was reported by a fellow student, Esme Allman, for attacking her personally. She never mentioned Isis in her complaint; instead, Travers was happy to let credulous journalists make the connection themselves and revel in the consequent attention (Travers has been cleared of misconduct, but stands by the assertion he was investigated for mocking Isis).
It’s easy to see why the story spread as it did. It ticks all the right boxes for outlets under assault from Breitbart’s editorial style: anti-West academics undermining our values, check; lefties sympathising with Islamism, check; social justice warriors giving cover to their own worst enemies, check. As Anne Marie Waters tweeted: “Join Isis = get all the sympathy our pathetic political class can throw at you”. It’s the election day crossword clue in a news story: write what you see in the world into the paper.
But this isn’t, by itself, enough for a false story to spread. Instead, two more elements are needed. First, gullible journalists, too keen to feed the outrage mill to properly check the stories they are running. Second, someone unscrupulous enough to realise that a heightened public profile is worth telling any lie, true to the Roger Stone playbook.
Travers’s laughable saga is emblematic of a wider cultural problem, which afflicts the media and the general public. In a hyper-partisan political atmosphere, we are too willing to believe those on our own side, and not willing enough to criticise them when they are wrong. As Cicero put it in the Pro Ligario: “Who does not know the harmony, and almost sameness, of this brotherhood? Who is not sensible that these brothers should be divided in their sentiments or fortunes?”
The role of a critical media should be to challenge that partisan uniformity. Yet much of the right-wing press has a vested interest in ensuring that stories like these keep emerging, true or not. As Rod Liddle puts it in an interview with Travers, in which the possibility that his side of the story might be partial is not discussed: “If it wasn’t for insanities like this, I wouldn’t have a job, so thank you.” In short, there is a big constituency for PC-gone-mad stories, and its appetite needs to be fed. If that leads to Walter Duranty-level journalistic standards, so be it.
Most news is not like a crossword clue with two equally correct answers. The truth does not change according to ideological preference. The media should fight reality-agnostic partisanship, not abet it.