Don't Slip on the Media's Banana Skins

By Eco, Umberto | New Statesman (1996), December 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

Don't Slip on the Media's Banana Skins


Eco, Umberto, New Statesman (1996)


Umberto Eco argues that society is ill: the press is full of gossip, and only the rich want privacy

I haven't had time to read today's paper yet, but I might just as well not read it, because I saw the news on the telly last night: the deaths of famous people, natural catastrophes, hotbeds of war- it told me everything I need to know. I could have bought a newspaper to find out the exchange rates, but I have a free subscription to an international service on the Internet, which e-mails me daily the, lira's value against all other currencies in the world, including those of Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.

So what could I possibly get from a newspaper that would make it worth reading as I ride on the train or drink my coffee? Gossip. We find ourselves faced with a cosmic phenomenon: gossip is becoming the number one interest of the written press. If you count the number of pages and columns devoted to Monicagate compared with Irangate, you'll see that gossip is the raw material of information today.

When there was a murder in the Vatican recently, the whole press corps moved into action even before it was known who had fired the shots. The papers were full of complicated, implausible explanations. The murder, we were told, involved a love triangle or a homosexual relationship. Or the colonel of the Swiss Guard was a Stasi spy. (Even if he were a Stasi spy, this would not explain the murder at all.) This is a big crisis for information.

Until recently, it seemed to me that certain problems concerned only the Italian press. However, the Clinton case has shown that this is not true. Paris-Match has shattered the myth that the French press is not concerned with the private life of its presidents. This is a big issue connected with the problem of democracy, because when the media's chief concern is gossip, it means that society is ill.

This illness was bound to infect the Internet. The sites that spread metropolitan legends may be more numerous than those that send me the exchange rates every morning. Anyone who has an intellectual profession today, for example, is besieged by the press with questions about the horrors that will usher in the year 2000. The story is going about that there were horrors at the first millennium, so the world's press is looking for the horrors of the second millennium. But when journalists tell you that there are Satanic sects, astral sacrifices, ufologists, you can tell them that they all already existed at the beginning of this century. People couldn't care less; they are thinking about booking New Year's Eve 1999 in Fiji or the Maldives. There are no horrors in store for the year 2000, and no one thinks there is except the media, which is doing its best to create them.

So gossip is one problem about the mass media. A second is privacy. There has never been so much talk about privacy as there is today. …

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