Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Numero Zero

by Drew Martin
I recently finished reading the last, thinnest, worst-reviewed book of the late, great Umberto Eco, Numero Zero (set in Milan, 1992), and yet it was my first time completing a work by him. My plan was to just absorb it all without a need for a blog post, so I did a normal read (without copious notes) and promptly returned it to the library. But then I started reading reviews of it and everyone, across the board, politely excused it as a lesser work or flat-out trashed it, especially the readers who had been enthralled by his previous works such as The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, and The Prague Cemetery. I felt compelled to defend what I liked most about it even though I too wish it could have been something more, so I checked the book out again and captured here why it is still a worthwhile read.

Let me be clear, the second half of it was a bit numbing for me because it is all about Mussolini's final days and a conspiracy theory that his body-double was murdered/brutally beaten while he was snuck away to Argentina or (perhaps) the Vatican. The first half of the book is great and even gave me enough momentum to roll through the Mussolini stretches. 

I like the double meaning of the title, which refers to the 0/1 - 0/12 dummy issues of the experimental newspaper, the Domani (Tomorrow in Italian, and a dig at "evening" news) that the unseen publisher, Commendator Vimercate, wishes to use as a kind of blackmail in order to have access to "the inner sanctum" of the financial and political elite. Numero Zero is also not numero uno, which points out the below-average talent of the skeleton crew gathered together by the editor in chief, Simei, to create the 12 issues over the course of a year. They are second-rate journalists: a crossword puzzle creator, gossip columnist, other dirt diggers, and the main character, Dottor Colonna, a 50 year-old who has waddled in provincial papers. There is even a staff member who Simei is certain is a spy but does not let on because he values the man’s deeper resources from the secret services.

Vimercate is the benefactor of this journalistic experiment and owner of multiple properties including homes for pensioners and the infirm. His other shady dealings include TV channels strewn with home shopping infomercials and risqué shows, and more than 20 low-brow publications with titles such as Peeping Tom and Crime Illustrated.

Simei is so sure of Domani’s ultimate failure that he has hired Colonna to ghostwrite Domani: Yesterday: the memoirs of a journalist, which is "the story of a year’s work setting up a newspaper that will never be published.” Colonna is tasked to write how Simei labored away for a year to create a model of journalism and failed because it was impossible to have a free voice, and to show that Simei is a journalist of highest integrity. Simei believes his book will secure his financial future through royalties. He decides to not let the other staff know about the book so Colonna is positioned as the assistant editor.

When Colonna asks Simei why doesn’t he write the book himself since he has a journalistic bent (he ran a sports weeky, and a men’s monthly “for men alone, or lonely men, whichever you prefer”), Simei responds: 

Running a newspaper doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to write.

Despite the hack journalists, and doomed future of the paper, Simei has a mission and gives the staff a true purpose to report, in the words of the New York Times slogan: all the news that’s fit to print….and maybe a little more. He explains that newspapers are always telling you what you already know, which is why sales keep falling. “We’ll be talking about what might happen tomorrow.”

Most of the reviews I read about Numero Zero got it wrong about the paper’s slant. It is not that the staff are simply writing about the news that already happened but rather they are instructed to write in a style of inquiry, knowing what they know, that embraces the potential of the evolution of news, and to try to capture that in a predictive manner.

Because of limited staff each dummy issue can carry whatever date we fancy, and it can perfectly well demonstrate how the newspaper would have treated it months earlier when, let’s say, the bomb had gone off. In that case, we already know what will fall, but we’ll be talking as though the reader doesn’t know yet know. So all of our news leaks will take on the flavor of something fresh, surprising, dare I say oracular. In other words, we have to say to our owner: this is how Domani would have been had it appeared yesterday.

…let it be understood that the newspaper is collecting other evidence, and say it in such a way as to put the fear of God into those who will be reading our issue number 0/1 knowing full well what has transpired since [February].

Numero Zero, would serve well as a humorous Journalism 101 read, and it captures the creative interactivity of a newsroom, such as this prompt by Simei.

So, Colonna, please demonstrate to our friends how it is possible to respect, or appear to respect, one fundamental principle of democratic journalism, which is separating fact from opinion.

Take the major British or American newspapers. If they report, say, a fire or a car accident, then obviously they can’t indulge in saying what they think. And so they introduce into the piece, in quotation marks, the statements of a witness, a man in the street, someone who represents public opinion. Those statements, once put in quotes, become facts – in other words, it’s a fact that that person expressed that opinion. But it might be assumed that the journalist has only quoted someone who thinks like him. So there will be two conflicting statements to show, as a fact, that there are varying opinions on a particular issue, and the newspaper is taking account of this irrefutable fact. The trick lies in quoting first a trivial opinion and then another opinion that is more respectable, and more closely reflects the journalist’s view. In this way, readers are under the impression that they are being informed about two facts, but they’re persuaded to accept just one view as being more convincing. Let’s give an example: a bridge has collapsed, a truck has fallen over the edge, and the driver has been killed. The article, after carefully reporting the facts, will say: We interviewed Signor Rossi, age forty-two, proprietor of a newsstand on the street corner. ‘What do you expect? That’s fate,‘ he says. ‘I’m sorry for the poor driver, but it’s the way things go.’ Immediately after, there’s Signor Bianchi, age thirty-four, a builder working on a nearby construction site, who’ll say. ‘The local authority’s to blame, this bridge has had problems, they’ve know about it for some time.’ Who is the reader going to identify with? With the one who’s being critical, who’s pointing the finger of blame.

Later in the book Colonna reports, “I read the first drafts of the articles, tried to give them a uniformity of style and to discourage overly elaborate expressions. Simei approved: “We’re doing journalism here, not literature.”

For other page fillers, they are inspired to create horoscopes with optimistic predictions "lasting happiness will suit everybody" and crosswords with hints such as “husband of Eve” or “the ruler of Germany during WWII”. And the staff is egged on along the way with tidbits of journalistic comments and advice:

Readers thinks that people generally are lousy workers, which is why we need examples of professionalism – it’s a more technical way of saying that everything’s gone well.

And above all, apologize….You musn’t say the Church has revised its original position on the rotation of the Earth but rather that the pope apologizes to Galileo.

And ultimately,

Newspapers teach people how to think.