Here’s what you know about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s health because you saw it, or read about it, in the news: She is suffering from a case of walking pneumonia that caused her to wilt in the heat on Sunday.
But, wait, here’s what you may not know but others are sure of: Clinton has a severe neurological disorder. She’s suffering from a brain tumor. She has dementia. She is such a sick woman that she isn’t likely to have the mental capability to fulfill her duties as president — should she be elected.
The reason you may not know these things is that they, of course, aren’t true. Let’s call them the “sub-news” — a pipeline of effluvium that flows beneath the mainstream news and occasionally leeches into it, causing “information pollution.”
The supposition behind the sub-news here is that Clinton is nefariously hiding her true medical condition. She is not really the victim of a bout of pneumonia, her critics insist, but of something far worse, even fatal.
That’s the way sub-news works. It always posits the worst: deception, chicanery, wrongdoing. It comports with the most negative view of things.
Though it’s circulating underground, so to speak, that doesn’t mean it’s secret. Sub-news can sometimes overwhelm the real thing.
There are two reasons why this happens. First, there is a whole lot of it. Second, many people prefer it to real news.
Sub-news used to be called rumor or gossip or innuendo or, depending on the motives behind it, disinformation. It is pounding away like jungle drums (using another metaphor), waiting for a news peg to push it from background noise to a featured spot at the front of the stage.
Now, with the rise of the internet, sub-news has been taking over an ever bigger portion of the show.
Clearly, there wouldn’t be so much sub-news if there weren’t a thirst for it. The question is: Why does sub-news seem to be the hottest news of all?
The answers are as old as human nature and as new as our evolving media and political cultures. The human-nature argument is that most of us love the hidden, the taboo, the contrarian. We love it because it is titillating, as well as highly entertaining. But also because it appears to strip the façade off the official version of events, which is the version the mainstream media report.
In a world in which the public increasingly feels that the truth is being concealed, sub-news makes us privy to the secrets — which may be the primary appeal of all gossip.
But if the public looks to it because it makes them feel privileged, the current reason its growth has exploded is that sub-news also enables them to feel vindicated. Unlike real news, sub-news is customizable. It adjusts to preconceptions and predispositions.
So if, say, you hate Clinton, and if you think, as GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has been insisting, that she is mentally unstable, then there are a whole lot of right-wing sub-news sites on the internet that will confirm your suspicions.
Not incidentally, this feature dovetails neatly with the current political culture in which each side not only has a different view of the world but a different set of facts to support it.
Real news isn’t – or at least should not be – malleable. Yet sub-news is infinitely malleable. Essentially, it is a form of propaganda.
Sub-news is often promulgated just to get a story out into the public sphere, where it can be very difficult to discredit. After all, 43 percent of Republicans think President Barack Obama is a Muslim, according to a CNN poll taken late last year. A poll in May showed that two-thirds of Trump supporters believed this. More than 70 percent of Republicans “still doubt” Obama is an American, according to a recent NBC/SurveyMonkey poll.
Sub-news will do that to you – recalibrate reality.
In a media context, sub-news originated in fringe rags like Stephen Clow’s “Broadway Brevities” of the 1920s and early 1930s, which were strictly segregated from the mainstream media. They were separated in part because they weren’t tasteful and in part because real newspapers didn’t want to be sued for libel. (Clow wound up behind bars for running a media extortion scheme, pulling damning sub-news items in return for the subject’s ransom.)
But sub-news proved too powerful a force to be segregated for long. It found its way into tabloids via gossip columns pioneered by Walter Winchell. During his heyday, from the 1930s to the 1950s, Winchell delivered dozens of items daily, many, if not most, of which were of doubtful veracity – sub-news.
Then sub-news insinuated its way into 1950s scandal magazines like Confidential, which, after a decade, suffered the fate of its forebear when it was put out of business by legal action.
For a while, the sub-news flow slowed to a trickle. Then came the internet. It isn’t just a sub-news sewer. It is a sub-news fountain. You can find almost any sub-news on it you want. Clinton, a demented lunatic? Just go to some right-wing website on the internet. Trump, a child molester? You can find that in the sub-news on the internet, too.
That is the real danger of sub-news. In a solipsistic society like ours, it might not only permeate real news, it might become ever more difficult to distinguish it from the real until the real seems to disappear.
It is an Orwellian nightmare. But one within which we may now be living. Sub-news all the time.
Meanwhile, psssst. Did you hear that Clinton is a psychotic serial killer, whose malady transforms her from a benign grandma to a murderous bitch? But don’t trust me. You can find it – if you want to believe it – in the sub-news.
Neal Gabler is the author of Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Cult of Celebrity and Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. He is working on a biography of Senator Ted Kennedy.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.