Thanks to the forethought of my wife, my family and I were lucky to have been able to travel to Madras, Oregon for the recent solar eclipse. Madras was one of the best places to see it, because of the low likelihood of overcast in the high desert of central Oregon during the summer months. As it happened, there was dense wood smoke instead, from the wildfires that have been burning all over the west in recent weeks. But on the day of the eclipse, we were fortunate that, thanks to a shift in the prevailing winds, the smoke had temporarily abated somewhat, and our view of the sky was quite good.
The eclipse was beautiful and spooky, unlike any other thing; happy intellectual fascination atop wild visceral dread.
But the most striking thing about the whole event was how the press disseminated totally false information about it.
In the lead up to the eclipse, the news was full of how disastrous traffic would be in the days before the eclipse, and especially on the morning thereof. The press reported that central Oregon would suffer a tripling or quintupling of its normal summer population for the weekend of the eclipse, especially in the vicinity of tiny Madras, which would swell from about 6,000 to about 600,000 people. Gas would probably run out, emergency services would be swamped, fights could break out, stores might quickly run out of food, porta-potties would overflow – and, soon, dogs and cats would be living together.
My wife had made reservations accordingly. She had rented a parking space on a Little League field in Madras. We would be cheek by jowl with hundreds of thousands of other spectators and their vehicles. It might take us eight hours or so to reach Madras from our lodgings in Bend, only a few miles away. So we planned to drive up there on the eve of the eclipse, camp out in the ball field, and then – knowing that departing traffic would be even denser – be prepared to camp there again the next night.
We anxiously monitored traffic in real time the day before the eclipse.
There was none.
So we decided to risk driving up to Madras the next morning. We got up at 5:00 AM and hustled to get on the road by 6:00, knowing there was a risk that traffic might prevent us from arriving at Madras by the beginning of the eclipse at 10:00 AM.
There was no traffic.
We happened upon a farmer’s mostly empty field just south of Madras, where we spotted a few pick-up trucks and tripods. It was nestled in a verdant valley between high basalt mesas, with misty views to distant mountains eastward and westward. Thinking it might be much nicer than a crowded baseball diamond, we stopped and asked permission to watch the eclipse from his field. He said use of the field was free, but he’d be glad of donations to cover his cost for the porta-potties he’d rented.
Huzzah! We settled in, tailgated, bundled against the morning chill and drinking hot coffee, and waited for the eclipse. A few minutes before it began, eight bucks with huge racks sprinted together eastward away from it, at top speed. They were the heralds of the strangeness.
A deep silence fell over the earth; crickets sang, then fell still. At totality, the temperature dropped ten degrees, and in the midnight darkness the stars came out. All was profoundly odd; the cosmos seemed turned upside down altogether, a literal catastrophe. Things might very well now be at their end, it seemed. We talked with each other nervously, quietly, respectfully.
All was hushed. Earth hunkered down abashed in silent horror, and awaited her doom.
Then a sliver of the sun appeared, and within a minute vibrant welcome normalcy reawakened. Everyone laughed; the birds began to sing, then hurried quickly to their regular midday business; it grew instantly hot. We packed up, and left.
So here’s the thing, the main point of this post (the stuff about the eclipse itself is included for its inherent interest): later that day we read in the LA Times that eclipse traffic in Madras had been a complete disaster. This was the exact opposite of the truth that we had ourselves experienced. It was quite clear that the piece had been composed a week before the event, so that it would be ready if column inches were needed that day. It was utterly, pathetically false. The local press in Bend reported that area merchants had experienced less volume than was usual for an August weekend. Gas, food, porta-potties, emergency services, restaurant tables, etc.: all were in plentiful supply. There was no crisis. There was no problem. Sure, there were some traffic jams heading north out of Madras afterward, but they cleared up after a couple hours – which is to say, they were like a normal day in the San Francisco Bay Area or Seattle.
In short, No Big Deal.
The whole thing was made up. We laughed the press to scorn. Such hapless idiots! We congratulated ourselves on our good fortune in finding the farmer’s field and enjoying such a serene and beautiful experience.
Next day, we were not so sanguine. The pall of wood smoke covering central Oregon had increased to an alarming degree. Headlights were necessary at noon; lungs began burning in the time it took to cross a parking lot from the store to the car. It began to seem as though greater Bend might be in real danger. But the lies of the press about eclipse traffic – the sensationalist exaggerations, to the point of complete fabrication – had shaken our confidence. There were forest fires raging only a few miles from the forest that surrounded the house where we were staying, and we now knew that there was simply no reliable news medium that could tell us the true nature and scope of the problem, so that we could make plans about whether to cut short our stay, pack up the children, and head to safety.
The news media were not performing their basic social function. They were not providing any news. They were providing garbage.
Fake news about political and cultural narratives at the national and cultural scale is one thing – one very bad thing. Fake news about completely uncontroversial matters of fact is quite another, and far worse – especially when those matters of fact may make an immediate life or death difference to the customers of the media.
It is clear that we are beset by both sorts of fakery, relentlessly, pervasively. That stuff you read today? It’s almost all garbage.
Now, never mind the implications for the popular discourse on such subjects as anthropogenic climate change, immigration, crime and policing, debt, the putative treasonous perfidy of the Trump administration, and so forth, bad as they are.
Consider rather what this means for us regarding, say, the current Mexican standoff with North Korea. Consider that the leaders of North Korea and the US may be making decisions about nuclear war that are influenced by … fake news.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Sin in, death out.