I have recently had the thrill of having my “letter to the editor” published in one of my favorite magazines, the July 12- 19 edition of the New Yorker. But it also gave me an insight into how the media distorts and modifies all sorts of information.
One thing I didn’t realize is that magazines and newspapers have the right to alter and shorten letters before they print them, but they have to get your permission in order to do so, so I had an exchange of emails with the editor of “The Mail” section before my letter was printed.
I was commenting on an article in the June 28th issue by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who whose article “A Man of Letters” talked about his patient who woke up from a stroke unable to read, because letters all looked like hieroglyphics to him. This is a condition called “alexia.” Sacks is a fascinating author, who once wrote about a patient who woke up after a stroke suddenly obsessed with classical music (I wrote about this in one of my diaries).
Here’s the letter I WROTE: “Re: The article about alexia in “A Man of Letters” by Oliver Sacks in your June 28th issue: So much of this is familiar to me. After my stroke (actually a burst aneurysm in my brain) five years ago, I came home after 6 weeks in the hospital unable to read a watch face. I even passed a test where a therapist drew circle on a piece of paper, told me it was a clock, and asked me to draw the hands at 10 after 2 (the trick is, of course, that they both face the same direction)–but I still could not read the watch on my wrist. It was frustrating to lose an ability I had worked so hard as a kid to learn, but I faced the inevitable and got a digital watch (which I never did figure out how to work) and then suddenly, my watch-reading ability returned. I had trouble finding my way around at first too, just like Sacks’ patient–every place I went seemed maze-like. One interesting side-effect, which I still have to some extent, was an inability to recognize people, which makes it hard to follow a movie plot if the good guy and the bad guy look too much alike. In real life, I always tell everyone that I may not recognize them the next time I see them, so they should just come over and say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so,” because I definitely know who they are. I also became a bit psychic for about six months after getting out of the hospital, which is the only symptom that I regret losing.”
Here’s the letter I they PRINTED: “Oliver Sacks’ article about alexia echoed an experience I had five years ago. After an aneurysm in my brain burst, I came home following six weeks in the hospital unable to read a watch face. I passed a test in which a therapist drew a circle on a piece of paper, told me it was a clock, and asked me to draw the face as it would appear at two-ten (the trick being, of course, that the hands exactly overlap). I was able to draw the face accurately, but I still could not read the watch on my wrist. It was frustrating to lose an ability I had worked so hard to learn as a child, but I face the inevitable and got a digital watch. And then, suddenly, my ability to read an analog watch returned. My doctors couldn’t explain to me why the ability had come back to me any more than they could explain why it had gone in the first place.”
I understood why they had to shorten it, but I was upset about the sentence they added: “My doctors couldn’t explain to me why the ability had come back to me any more than they could explain why it had gone in the first place.” This is patently untrue and any neurologist reading this letter will understand that immediately. These doctors have learned that our ability to tell time resides in one specific place in our brain and my neurologist told me that this part of my brain was obviously temporarily injured during the time I couldn’t read a watch face.
But that wasn’t what I objected to most: What I emailed back-and-forth about was their omission of what I considered to be the most important sentence of all: “I also became a bit psychic for about six months after getting out of the hospital, which is the only symptom that I regret losing.” They said they need to excise it for reasons of space, but I told them frankly that I didn’t believe that. I think they got rid of that (to their minds) “provocative” statement because it didn’t fit their media world view. Since it was a letter, not an editorial, it would have been clear to readers that it was MY impression, not their idea, but they went ahead an got rid of it anyway, and if I hadn’t finally agreed to this, they wouldn’t have printed my letter.
This type of editorial decision explains so much about what’s wrong with the media today–why we don’t read anything except ridicule in the mainstream press about so- called “paranormal” events, even though they are being seriously studied by mainstream scientists (such as Sacks himself). As for a phenomenon like UFOs and “contact,” well, FORGET IT! (Even though it is happening regularly to literally thousands of people all over the world). A moderate-sized earthquake in a small, third-world country has more chance of being reported. A knife fight in a suburban parking lot in another state will get more media coverage.
You can tell a lie by omission just as effectively as you can by a bald misstatement, which is why it is up to “edge news” sites like this one to bring you the facts that you won’t learn about anywhere else.
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