Whenever I go to the grocery store, I am overwhelmed by all the magazines and little newspapers that litter the check-out aisle. Among this week’s headlines:
As usual, the National Enquirer only reports the hard-hitting news stories. Sensationalism is all over the media. Every trial (take the Casey Anthony case for example) gets blown up on both sides of the argument. Even if there is only one scrap of truth in an article, the public eats it up. The public loves scandal. Trashy journalists appeal to the lowest common denominator of readers, the gullible sort who eat up drama-infused articles like they were Red Lobster cheddar biscuits.
Sensationalism has been around a lot longer than the National Enquirer. Way back when, some Protestant ministers decided to rile up some rumors about the Catholic Church and its practices in nunneries, all wrapped up in a straitjacket and labeled “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.”
According to these awful disclosures (which, mind you, were discredited quickly), Catholic nuns were in the habit of killing babies born in the convent, having sex with priests, and imprisonment of other nuns. This text builds and builds, fabricating scandal after scandal. For anyone who loves drama and thrills, Maria Monk is a dream come true. I’m pretty sure if they made a sensationalized musical of it, it would go something like:
Just take out the epic love triangles and singing sitar and add infanticide and rape.
But then again…
Here’s the thing to remember: Things are not always what they seem. Maria Monk didn’t even write these disclosures but guess what? People ate it up. Even if you didn’t believe what she wrote, you can’t get out of your head the image of the nuns dragging one of their own to be smothered by a mattress. Sure, it’s not real, but that’s how sensationalism works.
An easy example is a horror movie:
Better. So a bunch of kids start seeing this guy Freddy in their nightmares. Freddy starts killing them in their dreams, so the kids try to stay awake to escape him. Now, we all know it’s impossible for something in a dream to kill you. But after watching this movie, there were a couple times I caught myself thinking of Freddy Krueger and his knife-hands and it scared the bejezzus out of me. I know it’s not real, but when something plants a seed on your mind, it’s hard to weed it out.
I think that’s the biggest issue with Maria Monk. We know it was written by a bunch of dudes. But they go through such lengths to make it sound believable. They describe, in great detail, the apartments of the nuns, the horrors that happen, and in some passages, they even say, “You may not believe me.” They set up the text so that if anyone said, “Hey, that’s not how the convent looks,” Maria Monk would answer, “Oh no worries guys, it might have changed and I’m a woman and frail so obviously I can’t remember everything!”
No matter how true or horribly false a story can be, if a writer is good, the public will buy into it. National Enquirer is probably the best modern day example, considering it started in 1926 and it’s still going. People are still buying it because people love a good story. And that’s what Maria Monk’s awful disclosures are. They are good stories that are easy to read and easy to imagine. In the case of sensationalism, sometimes the difference between fact and fiction is a hard line to draw.