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AFTERSHOCKS - PHYCHIC AND OTHERWISE : The Power of Rumors: Middle Ages Revisited

January 30, 1994|Steven D. Stark | Steven D. Stark, who has written for the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post, is a commentator for National Public Radio

BOSTON — In medieval times, there was the Roman Catholic Church. But otherwise, there was no center to hold, so virtually every idea possessed some currency. As Lewis Lapham wrote recently, storytellers blurred the distinctions between truth and fiction with their allegorical tales of animals and saints. Belief was more important than knowledge and few people could read. Natural disasters and plagues mesmerized the public, and chaos was frequently the normal state of things. When something went bad, the response was often to start a witch hunt.

Every day, our culture seems to become more like the Dark Ages. So it seemed fitting that strange apocalyptic rumors swept Southern California in the wake of the Northridge earthquake. First, there was a widely circulated and accepted rumor that a secret fax was sent from the California Institute of Technology to the governor's office four days after the disaster, warning of an 8.5 quake within 72 hours. (Never mind that Caltech never predicts quakes.)

Then, it was widely repeated that the actual magnitude of the quake was 7.8, not 6.6 as reported, and "the powers-that-be" were keeping this a secret for fear it would be bad for business and would psychologically scar the city.

Though the details have obviously been modernized, there is something medieval about all this. We live in yet another era of atomization, which celebrates the baby-boom version of the Middle Ages' mysticism, love of spectacle and promotion of feeling over thought. In a boomer world where "the personal is political," everything, by definition, is in play. In such an atmosphere, what would really be surprising is if there were no wild, conspiratorial rumors sweeping the region after an earthquake. If we can no longer blame Satan for our troubles as we did a millennium ago, there's always Caltech or Pete Wilson.

Rumors, of course, are nothing new in American life: Thousands tried to close their accounts during the Great Depression as rumors of bank failures spread, and the baby boomers spent much of their formative years comparing notes on the apparent but unreported death of Paul McCartney. ("Turn me on dead man.") Widely accepted rumors tend to follow the panic that ensues in mass disasters--particularly when official organs of communication are impaired. In the minutes after John F. Kennedy's assassination, for example, there were wild stories exchanged in workplaces and schools about who else had been in the car, or where else the assassin might strike.

Psychologists tell us that rumors get started for a lot of reasons--attempts to explain troubling news, misunderstandings, a desire for communion and sometimes just plain mischief. But a culture that continues to spot Elvis, still scandal-mongers about Kennedy's death, obsessively speculates about what Michael Jackson and Tonya Harding really did and gobbles down vitamins based on "hearsay" medical evidence is obviously fertile ground for rumors of any sort--medievalism notwithstanding.

Part of the reason is that public cynicism about authority figures is so great. Rumors tend to arise when we don't believe what "officials" tell us. One can point to a variety of factors that have contributed to the current cynicism--from Watergate, to the baby boomers' distrust of authority, to the media's pervasive compulsion to tear down public figures. Americans--anti-Establishmentarians at heart--have never had much use for officialdom, anyway. But the bottom line is that everyone from the press, to priests, to Presidents now has a gaping credibility gap.

Part of the problem is that the media hierarchy has collapsed. In the old era of three networks and only a few other quasi-official information sources, people tended to get their news from the same places, which then functioned as gatekeepers. When Walter Cronkite said, "That's the way it is," it was, in part, because there weren't a lot of other sources of information that could compete with him.

But now the news bombards the public from thousands of equally credible, or better yet, incredible sources--not the least of which are public computer networks that operate faster than television and have no restrictions on the flow of information. Welcome to the misinformation highway.

The mainstream press no longer does a thorough job of distinguishing fact from rumor or fiction. In the not so recent past, there was a need for news only several times a day--to fill a newscast or an edition. Now, with 24-hour cable news services and far more news shows on the networks, there is a greatly increased demand for "news." One result has been a broadening of what is considered reportable--with the result that everything from speculation about Bill Clinton's alleged sexual escapades to Tonya Harding's motives is presented on an equal footing with what really happened.

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