OVID, AS TRANSLATED BY HORACE GREGORY AND PROVIDED HERE BY KENNETH HARWOOD
[The celebrated Roman poet of love and fable, Ovid (also known as Naso P. Ovidius, who lived from B.C.E. 43 to C.E. 18), guides us through a current conundrum in “The House of Rumor.”]
A mountain-round-house tower is her home.
Innumerable doorways all around it.
A thousand entrances, exits, arcades,
And none with doors. Or night and day
The place keeps open house, and its brass walls
Reflect the lightest word, the lowest whisper;
The place is silent, never noisy,
Yet full of voices, like the sound of waves
Heard from a lighthouse set a mile inshore,
Or like the stilled and trembling trail of sound
Jove’s thunder leaves after black clouds collide.
Through tower halls the Many come to talk,
Lies twisted into truth, truth into lies;
All come and go, and gossip never ends.
Talk, talk, talk, talk fills many hundred ears
That empty as a story’s told, rehashed,
And told to someone else, or fiction grows;
Each time retold adds what is heard
To what’s been said before. And Innocent
Believe-It-All walks there, Deaf-And-Blind Error,
Pushing his way or runs and hides, and dear,
Foolish, Without-A-Leg-To-Stand-On Joy,
Mad Fear, Glib Treason, Confidential Whisper.
Rumor takes in all things at sea, on land,
And, at a distance, in the skies in heaven,
Everything heard or seen throughout the globe.
What might media ethicists make of this tour of the House of Rumor?
Ovid himself has remarked that Rumor sometimes is mistaken for great Fame—and more often is seen as Notoriety. A few main points stand out. Persistence of “true news” mixed with “false” reaches across two thousand years and more. Centuries before printing arrived in Germany from China (c. 1454 C.E.), the task of sorting fake accounts from real ones continues. The task of finding ways to tease out the truth and knock falsehood back on its heels is only a partial success today and in the long term—for otherwise we could see little but the losses we suffer from accepting the false.