Episode 111 – “Printer’s Devil”

How would someone who is bent on spreading evil use the newspaper publishing business to achieve its goal?  We don’t have to look far for answers to this question now, when traditional newspapers have been supplemented by new Internet-based publications, and where both are now most widely disseminated via social media. In its current form, news media includes efforts to deliberately present misinformation to the public, and, perhaps more disturbingly, to influence public opinion and public action, including the democratic process itself. “Printer’s Devil” anticipates the current state of news publication, by imagining how the devil itself could thrive in the newspaper publishing business. It is a cautionary tale that we would have been well-served by heeding not long ago.

A prescription that is unlikely to appear in any code of ethics for journalists is the following: Publish reports only of events that have occurred in the past. Do not report an event that has not occurred, and do not cause events to occur by reporting them. Perhaps the reason why the first part of this prescription is never stated is that it is already covered by the standard prescription to “seek the truth and report it” (SPJ, 2014).  The second part of the prescription might be excluded on the grounds that one can’t cause an event to occur simply by publishing a report that it has occurred.

The rub is that in our fanciful episode Mr. Smith is a journalist who, in virtue of being the devil, can make events occur by reporting them. Significantly for the comparison to the current state of news and social media, Mr. Smith is depicted as a master of the news publishing technology of the time, the linotype machine. Mr. Smith takes news copy that is submitted to the paper’s editorial office, and turns it into blocks of metal type that are laid out in pages which then go to the press, producing hard-copy newsprint. What is special is that he’s modified the machine so that it causes the events he writes about on it to occur. With the short delay from linotype production to printing and distribution, when the paper hits the street, what is reported has occurred.

While we can imagine a devil with these incredible journalistic capabilities, we certainly don’t have to worry about one making things happen by writing about them. But that doesn’t mean that it is inappropriate to consider this thought experiment, and, in particular, to consider how the mastery of publishing technology, which today is light-years beyond the linotype machine, means for the possibility of influencing or manipulating events through technology. This isn’t merely possible, but sadly it is actual. During the 2016 presidential race in the United States, bad actors, including agents of foreign governments, created “news stories” and published them on such social media platforms as Facebook and Twitter. Those “stories” were designed to bring about political events, such as rallies and meetings, which they did, and those events were then further reported by other media outlets. So journalism as practiced by some, has taken a page from Mr. Smith’s playbook, and it provides a cautionary tale about the use of technology in the media.

Aside from questions about the ethics of journalism, and the appropriate standards for the reporting of news, “Printer’s Devil” presents a philosophical puzzle about the rationality of making a deal with the devil. The puzzle is presented by the devil himself, Mr. Smith. First, he points out that it is irrational to believe in the existence of the devil, as he says to Douglas Winter, “As a sophisticated 20th century man, you know that the devil does not exist.” However, Mr. Smith claims that if Winter is reluctant to sign the deal presented by Mr. Smith, that can only be because Winter believes that Mr. Smith is the devil. If Winter is worried that by signing the agreement he is bargaining away his soul to the devil, that worry should be allayed by realizing that the devil doesn’t exist. It simply can’t hurt to sign the document. (What Mr. Smith doesn’t say is that on his argument signing can’t help either!)

Mr. Smith’s argument bears some resemblance to the argument known as Pascal’s wager. Pascal argued that believing in in God is the only rational thing to do. If you don’t believe in God, and God exists, then you will go to hell and suffer eternally. If you don’t believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you’ll lead a finite life which may be a bit better than otherwise because of your atheism. If you believe in God and God exists, you can secure eternal life in heaven. If you believe in God and God doesn’t exist, then you were wrong, but little harm can come from that false belief.  If you calculate the expected utility of the two choices – belief or disbelief, where expected utility is the product of the probability of an event and its utility, then it is clear that the choice to believe will always have a higher expected utility than the choice not to believe.

In “Escape Clause”, the devil, who goes by the name “Cad Walleder” convinces a mortal, Walter Bedeker, that trading the soul for an immortal life of excellent health is a great deal, because the soul is insignificant. It’s hardly anything. Mr. Smith uses the same strategy, and that’s not surprising. When one attempts to strike a bargain, it’s always a good idea to devalue what the other person is going to have to give up and inflate the value of what they are going to gain and what you are giving up. Mr. Smith goes even further, and denies that the soul even exists! Winter doesn’t catch the inconsistency of Smith’s position. He’s trying to get Winter to sign over something that he claims Winter doesn’t even have.

Mr. Smith,  the devil, leers at women and treats them as objects. His behavior is beyond creepy. While Winter is clueless about the difficulties that result from his hiring Mr. Smith, Jackie Benson is suspicious from the start, and it is she who mounts the challenge to Smith’s legitimacy and authority.  When Mr. Smith physically abuses her, she slaps him in the face. Jackie Benson is the real hero of this story.


Further Reading:

Pascal, Blaise, (1670), Pensées, translated by W. F. Trotter, London: Dent, 1910.

Society of Professional Journalists’ (2014) Code of Ethics https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Ward, Stephen J. A., (2005) Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond McGill-Queens University Press.

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