There are two possible responses to the rise of conspiracy theories: either the media needs to re-educate the public, or the media needs to regain the public’s trust. Among respectable commentators, the first option is more popular. Barack Obama recently suggested that “we’re going to have to work with the media and with the tech companies to find ways to inform the public better about the issues, and to bolster the standards that ensure we can separate truth from fiction.”
But of course, the media, the tech companies and the rest of the political elite which Obama describes as “we” are not trusted in the first place. And looking at their recent record — Russiagate, the Cambridge Analytica non-story, the suppression of inconvenient reports about the Biden campaign — you can see why. So perhaps it’s better to start with the other question: how can the mainstream media regain the public’s trust?
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The simple answer to that is that it needs more people like John Hersey, and more institutions like the New Yorker of 1946.
Hersey, a journalist and novelist who died in 1993, is the hero of Lesley Blume’s absorbing new book Fallout. As Blume shows, the US government did a remarkably efficient job of covering up the effects of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Reporters were first banned, then allowed in on condition that they toed the line. At one point, the Pentagon invited reporters from outlets including the Associated Press, United Press, the New York Times, NBC, CBS and ABC to join a supervised trip to the two cities. The results were exemplified by a piece in the New York Times assuring readers that, “horrible as the bomb undoubtedly is, the Japanese are exaggerating its effects … in an effort to win sympathy for themselves in an attempt to make the American people forget the long record of cold-blooded Japanese bestiality.”
There were a couple of more truthful journalists; one found that his report was lost in the post, while the other had his camera stolen and was kicked out of the country. Both spoke contemptuously of the “housetrained reporters” who were, in effect, relaying government propaganda. It’s the kind of thing which encourages conspiracy theories: a major atrocity, a huge historical event, concealed from the public — and not despite the media but with its help.
What eventually rescued the credibility of the press was Hersey’s New Yorker report from Hiroshima, which described, in 30,000 vivid and precise words, what had happened on the day the bomb fell. The horrifying facts Hersey had uncovered, and the novelistic skill with which he presented them, caused a sensation. The article reached hundreds of thousands of readers — among them Albert Einstein, who ordered a thousand copies for him to distribute to leading scientists, and President Truman, who publicly pretended he “never read” the New Yorker while launching a damage-limitation PR campaign.
Hersey himself was named as one of Celebrity Bulletin’s top 10 celebrities of 1946 alongside Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. After his article, celebrations of scientific progress, or of World War II as a great moral crusade, would never ring quite as true again. And it’s partly thanks to Hersey that the atom bomb has not been used since.
What was Hersey’s, and the New Yorker’s, secret? Partly it was luck: he arrived several months after the first wave of journalists, by which point the authorities had relaxed their grip. But partly it was Hersey’s — and his editors’ — very particular virtues. At the time, anti-Japanese feeling was running high in the US: polls found that almost one in four Americans wished there could have been “many more” atom bombs dropped. Hersey remembered an atmosphere of “rage and hysteria”, and having read about Japanese wartime atrocities, he had at first shared those emotions. But over the course of the war, his own attitude changed. If “civilization was to mean anything,” Hersey decided, “we had to acknowledge the humanity of even our misled and murderous enemies.”
The deputy editor of the New Yorker, William Shawn, was an ideal colleague in this respect. As the writer Lillian Ross recalled, Shawn believed “every human being [was] as valuable as every other human being … every life was sacred.” Ross once pushed Shawn on this: “Even Hitler?” “Even Hitler,” Shawn replied.
The New Yorker sent Hersey to Japan not to judge, but to listen. First he found a Hiroshima priest who could introduce him to locals and act as a translator. Then he simply sat down with the survivors and humbly, attentively, heard them out. One Japanese interviewee said it was like talking to an old friend.
That respect for survivors’ stories made Hersey’s report extraordinarily vivid. Instead of writing in a tone of outrage or forced empathy, he focused on the human side — the banal, even comic, details of the day the bomb fell. A doctor, rushing to help survivors, discovers that his own glasses have been lost in the explosion, and snatches a pair off the face of a wounded nurse. (He ends up wearing them for a month.) Two survivors find a dead carp in a pond and discuss whether it is safe to eat. (Probably not, they conclude.) A priest, falling asleep in a temporary camp, is sadistically woken by his housekeeper who feels like a chat. It was against this backdrop that Hersey set his tale of death, destruction and disease — and those who read it understood: These people are like me.
All of which suggests a moral. If the mainstream media is distrusted, it’s partly because it seems to ignore or look down on large parts of society. Journalists like Jon Ronson, who sympathetically interviews social outcasts, or Chris Arnade, who listens to the stories of poor Americans, have to put up with a lot of mockery and criticism. But they are doing what Hersey did: going to the people on the margins, and hearing what they have to say.
The other thing about Hersey was his love of truth. He had left a previous job at Time because the editors were taking the controversial bits out of his articles. (Echoes of Suzanne Moore and The Guardian.) The New Yorker was a better fit: the editor Harold Ross, and Shawn, his deputy, had what Blume’s book calls “a near mania for accuracy” — not just about facts but about linguistic precision. In an early draft, Hersey described a bicycle as being left “lopsided” by the blast. Ross was kept awake at night worrying about this single adjective. Could a bicycle, in a sense a two-dimensional object, be lopsided? So he put Hersey and Shawn to work, and they settled on the right word: crumpled. That kind of care over language is closely related to truthfulness: it’s no accident that where you find lazy, jargon-filled, clichéd prose, you will also find distortions of reality.
If the mainstream media ever regains the public’s trust, it will be because of journalists like Hersey who genuinely seek the truth wherever it is to be found, and institutions run by editors who, like Harold Ross, aim to “present the truth and the whole truth without fear.” Everyone, of course, claims to be doing that. But as the poet George Crabbe put it 200 years ago:
Truth! for whose beauty all their love profess;
And yet how many think it ugliness!