THE RUMOR MILLS
Once the nation’s rumor mills came very close to violating EPA guidelines. For years, the standard one-part-per-billion limit on rank improbabilities and eye-watering lies had sufficed to insure the relative safety of the public, since prevailing winds could usually be counted on to disperse routine gasbag emissions as well as the occasional release of potentially far more serious concoctions. When levels of toxic falsehood previously assumed to be tolerable threatened to exceed these limits, however—most notably with the relaxing of government guidelines on the degree of deviation from fact allowed the worst offenders at times of heightened national emergency, when the rumor mills were kept churning away 24/7 and the general populace was urged to cover their eyes, hold their noses, and trust their leaders to determine how much fouling of the air was permissible—that is, when clouds of thick mendacity began to billow out across the land and there was a run on gasmasks not just in the capital but everywhere, calls for stricter controls and stiffer penalties could lead to unpleasant consequences indeed for those bold enough even to open their mouths in such noxious conditions. Yet once the initial alarms had worn off or people had simply grown used to the now-familiar smell of something rotten in the wind, what purpose would it serve, many officials and official opinion makers opined, to insist the first priority must be cleaning things up right away? On the contrary, they said with every confidence, revised guidelines for establishing more practical levels of falsehood should be given careful and exhaustive consideration by blue-ribbon, bipartisan commissions appointed on the highest authority. In the meantime, the advice given to the public at large was to get used to changes in the climate of the times. And here’s where big media conglomerates showed their civic awareness in a most opportune fashion, offering a way of adjusting to new conditions that involved a person’s merely taking in and holding for as long as possible the mix of hype, hearsay, and hot air generated day and night by any number of journalistic powerhouses in the form of celebrity updates, circus trial coverage, pseudo-science, trivialized moral values, bathos by the metric ton, and the like. Increasing the public’s tolerance for this low-level bane in stages, gradually numbing their gag reflex until practically nothing brought an immediate, severe reaction anymore, proved remarkably effective in reducing the sensitivity people might originally have had to the pollution of trust on a national scale. In that sense, the country doubtless owed a debt of gratitude to all those intrepid reporters and their editors who took it upon themselves like this to ease the public’s exposure to the worst by administering innocuous doses of a poison that at full strength they’d determined in their collective wisdom would be too much for people to deal with. Supplying their audience with easy-to-take half-news in place of the whole story—the real enormity of the gathering threat to the nation’s welfare—showed they’d be more than ready for the next rumor-surge, when authorities would be well advised to take advantage of their obvious willingness to cooperate again.
Copyright © 2007 by Geoffrey Grosshans