Interesting if true

My title is from some long-forgotten world of journalistic near-integrity. That is, from a time I am old enough to remember the end of, when a “normal” hack was an almost anonymous, flat-foot fellow, who went about gathering “news” from those most likely to provide it, and used his salty judgement about who was telling how much of the truth. While he used the electric telephone, the telex wires and other modern innovations, he looked most of his sources in the eye (whether in Orangeville, Ont., or Washington, DC). This kept him out and about all day. As he had a “beat,” which he held for years, decades, or his whole adult life, he would more or less know his way around it. Returned to his corner of the big office, where he had no privacy and got no unearned respect (even from the copy boys or the sweepers), he further used his judgement to determine what the requirements of a “family newspaper” were, with respect to basic decency. None of his kind would have university degrees; especially not the editor-in-chief. They smoked and drank a lot. But as they had few, if any woman colleagues, and went boozing only with “the boys,” they didn’t have affairs: staggering home to a lonely room, or to a little house with a wife and disorderly children. There were exceptions, but this was “normal.”

The current sort, an increasingly endangered species, because there is no use for them at all, sit hunched over a computer all day, checking various websites for “leads,” and “messaging” with total strangers — including the people they purport to know. They have by-lines, but no beats, and they work in self-decorated cubicles, which they leave only to fetch coffee. The management give them nothing but “respect,” publicly. All have degrees, mostly in “journalism,” but sometimes in sociology or “gender studies” or “international relations.” They are non-smokers, and close to teetotal, and as they say in Alberta, “dumb as a sack of hammers.” This goes also for the women; and to understand the office, one must know who is sleeping with whom.

And then of course we have our “citizen journalists” — people like me — but I’d rather not go there.

It is hard to navigate between the Scylla of naiveté, and the Charybdis of cynicism, in times like these. I refer, for instance, to a “news” story, that was prominent this morning, suggesting major tennis tournaments are fixed. Some of the biggest names, it is alleged, take bribes to lose important matches. I have no idea whether to believe it. I know nothing about tennis anyway.

And yet the story was, to my mind, “interesting if true.” This is an ancient journalistic phrase, warning the reporter to err on the side of scepticism. But in order to follow it, one would have to know, from the start, what is likely. One would need to be deeply embedded in that beat, and to have looked often in the eyes of each of the accused. As well, to have all one’s facts lined up, like toy soldiers. And then write each word, thinking, “Will I have to eat every one?”

This is not only because there are people who could be falsely and maliciously accused. For as in the soccer scandal that preceded it, or Olympic drug scandals, passim, one is confronted with a worldview question. If, Heaven forfend, it is possible to fix international sports tournaments, over long periods, while “the whole world is watching,” what does this say about other popular events, perhaps beyond sport? (Elections come to mind.) Is it possible, for instance, that everything now in the news has been fixed in some way? In which case, as a lawyer might comment, “madness is indicated.”

I don’t actually believe very much is fixed, or in its nature, fixable. While I have no opinion on tennis scandals, my understanding of the world is that conspiracies are much harder to arrange, and sustain, than in the jaded popular imagination; that tyranny requires some threat of brute force; that the world is full of lies, but few of them well-organized. Moreover, I think that lies appeal only to those who want to believe them; and are otherwise conceded only by those who do not know any better, or want a quiet life.

This view is quasi-theological. God will put men in tough positions, but not in those where they cannot guess at the truth, or what is reasonable. He wouldn’t make it that easy for the Devil. He (God) doesn’t do X-Files. He is consistent, and consistently allows the contradictions within every attempted conspiracy to break it down. Perhaps this is what is happening within tennis; or perhaps the reporting is cynical and jaded. The truth will eventually find a way out, here or hereafter; but usually quite soon. “Interesting if true” becomes interesting if false: for not only tennis stars are sinners.

Somewhere there is the draught of an essay on, “The Uses and Abuses of Paranoia,” meant for “P” in an alphabet book I was once compiling on the uses and abuses of this and that. My point, then and now, is that sanity requires an understanding that all human evils are in their nature passing; that each corresponds to a potential good; and is limited by its circumstances. Moreover, I believe that sanity requires a certain worldly detachment, and thus absolutely, faith in a Loving God; that this isn’t “an option” but the beginning of comprehension, or “wisdom” in the old-fashioned sense.

For at the back of things, benevolence shines; and though malevolence is no illusion, it is passing cloud.