Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Watson and the media

We always like to think that our current race of humans is completely new and completely different. Spend much time in history, however, and often a situation you consider unique to us is just old human foibles with a new coat of paint. Sherlock Holmes himself admitted it in his studies of the history of crime, saying more than once that everything he faced was similar to crimes past.

So when one comes to our modern media crises -- yellow journalism, manipulation of news outlets by their wealthy owners -- the world has definitely been here before. And how best to deal with such troubles? Well, in this case, I'm going to advocate following not Sherlock's lead, but John H. Watson's. Emulating Holmes can seem a high bar, so let's take it easy and for his more-like-most-of-us pal.

Chapter six of A Study in Scarlet begins with Watson summarizing some of the accounts of the case from the local papers. The Daily Telegraph is pushing an anti-foreigner, conspiracy-laden angle. The Standard is blaming liberals. The Daily News politicizes the case by laying it on European governments mistreatment of their citizenry. Every news outlet is blaming some other guy than the one they support, as well as praising Lestrade and Gregson for some peculiar reason, considering they hadn't solved the case yet.

As Holmes and Watson know the true facts of the matter, they're especially amused by the varied accounts, but important point not to be missed here is that they read ALL the accounts. Even though they knew the story as well as any reporter, they still read all the newspapers at their disposal to see if any fact might have gotten by them. Even as they saw the slanted focus of each individual source, they still scanned through all of them to see if anything useful could be found in any one of them.

A Study in Scarlet is definitely not the last time we see the residents of 221B Baker Street consuming multiple news sources, and using their own critical thinking skills to digest what's coming in on those channels. It's a part of what has always made Sherlock Holmes eternally relevant: his search for facts before theorizing, his attempts to keep personal bias from looking hard at obvious truths. And, as we see in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes wasn't the only one who applied such judgement to what he took in. Watson was cognizant of that need as well.

When you see some of the blatant media manipulations going on today, as some sources tell us not to believe other sources while they themselves behave in ways showing them as untrustworthy, it's important to look at our friends in the Canon and realize that we aren't the first, nor will we be the last, who have to deal with sources that require a little thought on our part.

Some battles are going to have to be fought as long as humans are humans, and we're lucky to have Holmes and Watson to give us a few clues there.

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