COLUMN

Facts can just ruin a good story

What fun it is to read about Kim Jong Il’s ‘reported’ orgies and ‘suspected’ crimes. Soon, the dull truth will replace those tales.

CHARLES GORDON August 1 1994
COLUMN

Facts can just ruin a good story

What fun it is to read about Kim Jong Il’s ‘reported’ orgies and ‘suspected’ crimes. Soon, the dull truth will replace those tales.

CHARLES GORDON August 1 1994

Facts can just ruin a good story

COLUMN

ANOTHER VIEW

What fun it is to read about Kim Jong Il’s ‘reported’ orgies and ‘suspected’ crimes. Soon, the dull truth will replace those tales.

CHARLES GORDON

The Freedom From Information movement is gathering strength daily. The movement consists of those people who have decided that we know too much about everything, especially the stuff we don’t want to know anything at all about.

For example, from newspapers and nightly television entertainment programs—not to mention the news programs—we know so much about the plots of new movies that the ending is never a surprise. We know hundreds of new ways we can do damage to ourselves, hundreds of new diseases, thousands of symptoms; our minds are full of tips on avoiding things we would have avoided anyway by using common sense.

Almost in spite of ourselves, we know obscure details about the singers of songs we have never heard, actors in movies we will never see. We know everything about the contracts of professional athletes. We know, it is almost too obvious to say, too much about the O. J. Simpson case, especially the opinions of many self-proclaimed legal experts. And while some Canadians might contend that we don’t know enough, owing to certain judicial decisions, about certain Canadian court cases, all kinds of information, much of it mis-, has been flowing down the information superhighway, and people are all too glad to tell us about what they have found in their little computers.

There is an irony in this—that the law is trying to limit our access to information at the same time that technology is increasing it— but more about that later.

The range and power of the mass media have so far been the main targets of the Freedom From Information movement, but the information superhighway is moving into contention. The pressure grows on ordinary, law-abiding citizens to get electronic addresses for themselves and ride this highway, which will enable them to learn more than they ever wanted to know and spend

more time than they ever wanted to spend learning it, while they are electronically pestered by more people than could ever pester them before.

A stunning example of this is the computer bulletin board discussion group on the Internet called alt. drugs, caffeine. People voyage on this tiny stretch of the electronic superhighway in order to share their profound views on coffee, the worship of which is a new fad that threatens to give wine snobbery a good name. Also in existence are alt. coffee and alt.food.coffee, featuring a range of views and facts about proper temperatures, the best methods for storage and, for all we know, the best kinds of dogs to guard one’s supply.

Unless Freedom From Information recruits mightily and works heroically, there will be more and more of this stuff. Some will call it a victimless activity, but think of the useful things these people could be doing, what service to society they could be rendering if not forced to feed their slavish addiction to information, not to mention coffee.

A point worth making here, one that all journalists know, is that too much information can destroy a good story. Consider, for example, the earliest reports of the change of lead-

ership in North Korea. These were classic stories, full of fascinating details, and why? Because nobody knew the boring details yet.

In a Los Angeles Times story carried in Canadian newspapers and printed three days after Kim II Sung’s death, we learned the following about Kim Jong II, his presumed successor:

• He “is said” to watch public executions with “frenzied joy.”

• He “is said” to amuse himself by ordering subordinates to strip naked or shave their heads.

• He “is suspected of masterminding international bombings and kidnappings.

• He “reportedly” stages frequent orgies in his palatial villas.

• He is paranoid about germs.

• He is a film fanatic, who has 20,000 videos.

• He is an ardent fan of Daffy Duck cartoons.

• He has made only one “known” public utterance in his life—“Glory to the heroic Korean People’s Army”—in 1992.

• “Analysts say” he is a recluse who finds it difficult to meet people’s eyes.

• He “is said” to be sensitive about his height and weight (he is short and chunky) and wears heels and a permed bouffant hairdo.

• He orders his home disinfected every day.

All of this fascinating stuff came from one newspaper story! And where did we get it? Here is a key paragraph, which follows the one revealing the strength of his allegiance to Daffy Duck: “Such bizarre tales have long filtered out of Pyongyang from diplomats and defectors____”

What great tales they are and what fun it is to read them. Inevitably, they will be replaced by facts, boring facts, and the facts will be spread around the planet with great speed, due to the fabulous capabilities of our communications technology. In no time at all, the bouffanted Daffy Duck fan will be replaced in our mind’s eye with economic statistics, the texts of speeches, crop reports, astrological details and other database information.

That is why it is not a contradiction to complain about knowing too much about Kim Jong II and not enough about Karla Homolka. In the first instance, the release of more information will merely ruin a good story. In the second case, the release of more information will calm the fevered imaginations of those who trade in gossip, electronic and otherwise. This is above and beyond the important principle that whatever happens in the courtrooms of a society that operates under the rule of law is information we need.

The insane contradiction of our information society is that the information a society needs—such as what is happening in Canadian courts of law—is hard to come by, while the information from which we need to be free—such as the gossip of coffee addicts and bystanders in Los Angeles courtrooms— assails us at every turn. Freedom From Information is an idea whose time has come.