We may like to think that we moderns brought the world its twittering classes and face to face gossip exchanges, but the fact is both classes were on the scene and active millenniums ago.
Their range wasn’t as great as it is today, but the format was identical and a few hundred kilometers north of its now capital city of Victoria native nations of Nootka Sound used it to keep up to date on events.
It was in Nuu-chah-nulth territory where long-distance travelers and traders were welcomed with a traditional feast at which they were expected to repay their hosts with news of other places. They were expected to be truthful when they reported to local chiefs stories of victory or defeat in battles witnessed in their travels; of famines survived or record harvests shared.
And when left to continue their travels or go home, they were loaded with gifts of food in the hope that the storytellers would twitter about them favourably.
In his classic book, A History of News” Mitchell Stephens tells us the Nootka chiefs were not above a little salacious storytelling every now and then. One such story involved “a suitor who tumbled into a barrel of rainwater as he was sneaking out the window of his lover’s house.” Once twittered at a lodge campfire, the story took wings and “spread like wildfire up and down the coast.”
Today it would be proudly praised as a top story “going viral.” Readers still prefer news stories with a little sex and a dash of violence, reporters prefer writing them and publishers know what their readers prefer.
The age of twittering storytellers eventually faded as society recognized that a twice-told tale could become slightly different in its second telling and unrecognizable in its third and fourth. Some of today’s reader will remember the old campfire game where we sat in a circle our leader would whisper a sentence in an ear which would then be passed along to whispered completion. The final recipient would then stand and recite what he heard whispered and the leader would read out what had actually been said at the start of the game.
It was never the same story.
In Europe, coffee table twittering and chatter lasted for centuries before being replaced by more stable print and a vastly wider audience. Unfortunately, a wider audience has never automatically guaranteed a more honest product. Mitchell Stephens skillful autopsy of print-press, its triumphs, and its failures should be a must read for all who wish to ply the trade of journalism, snipe from the sidelines with a twittering load of misleading grapeshot – or just happily pay a weekly fee to read the inane posing as news.
“A History of News” was first published in 1988. It could be hard to find but will be worth the search if you are successful. But be warned it could be a painful journey as Stephens forces us to understand that while we lamented much of the “news content” presented in our newspapers even as they went into their continuing death spiral, it was “content” readers preferred.
In the last few lines of his book Stephens’ writes about the expanding power of huge companies building ever larger data banks. He writes : “….no matter how sophisticated news organs become, unless human beings are also re-wired, they are likely to continue to satisfy their desire to remain aware with a spicy, hastily prepared mix of the portentous and the anomolous similar to that with which they have satisfied that desire for the past few thousand years.”