Fed up with polarized politics?
Exhausted by campaign robocalls?
Confused about whether news is fake or real?
Consider a delightful respite: As serious as the news is, a few laughs can’t hurt. You’re in for a lot of laughs in the 1938 novel “Scoop,” by the English author Evelyn Waugh, satirizing fierce competition among unethical British newspapers to build circulation through sensationalistic coverage of colonial wars in Africa.
One paper, the Daily Beast, finding itself shorthanded, mistakenly enlists as a war correspondent an innocent — William Boot — who lives with zany relatives in the countryside and contributes wispy trifles to the Beast about wildlife.
The process the Beast used to vet Boot was simple. Just one question: “Can he write?” One editor, reading aloud to another, quoted from a piece by Boot:
“Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.”
That line was good enough for them, and they dispatched Boot to Africa. And the line was so good for readers of "Scoop" that they have enshrined it in a pantheon of prissy prose. I looked up the word “plashy;” it means marshy. And fen means marsh. So … marshy marsh. And a vole is a field mouse, constantly prowling for food.
The novel, ranked among the 100 best ever written in English, traces Boot’s misadventures in an occupation totally foreign to his knowledge or interest. Amid the laughs are valuable insights about the Beast’s brand of journalism.
Boot’s bosses try to teach him to manufacture what some now call fake news. He can’t get out of his own way, and he produces nothing, until he stumbles onto the genuine scoop that boosts the Beast’s circulation.
Those warring British newspapers operated without an ethics code. Now, in America, the Society of Professional Journalists publishes an ethics code. Editors and reporters learn how to overcome the biases we all have: Detach ourselves from the outcome of the story we are covering; facts are facts, whether we like them or not.
Fact: We are all questing voles, writing for food.
Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson, winner of an Emmy Award, teaches journalism at Colorado College. He can be reached at writebetterwithgary.com.