We all see tabloid newspapers every day, with absurd headlines and photos that are obviously fake. Many people pass them by, scoffing derisively along the way. But have you ever asked yourself how you would feel if you were the one on the cover? Maybe you’d be fine with it, since it’s obviously just trash and people will pass by and scoff, like you do yourself. But then you realize that these “newspapers” are only in business because people buy them. How many? I don’t know. But enough, and there’s a chance a few, or more than a few, are going to believe what they read.
How would you react to being publicly shamed in this way? And how far would you go to get revenge on the strangers who set out to ruin your reputation for no other reason than they wanted to make money?
This hypothetical is an all too real reality for the protagonist of Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, a searing indictment of what can happen to an innocent person in a world that loves a good story, whether it’s true or not.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is a strange hybrid of a novel, a crime thriller written like a retrospective report and an analysis of the frightening power of the press to utterly ruin the lives of anyone it sets its sights on. It begins with the eponymous character confessing to the police that she has killed a reporter, named Tötges, from a tabloid newspaper. We then flash back four days earlier, when Blum met a man named Ludwig, who turns out to be a wanted criminal. Blum’s encounter is innocent enough, arguably a love at first sight story, just like the character herself – Blum is modest, decent, and while she may have made some bad decisions, she is fundamentally a good person.
That doesn’t matter to Tötges and the other reporters at a local tabloid newspaper, who proceed to systematically destroy Blum’s reputation. Through lies and extremely distorted quotes, he gives people the impression Blum is a political radical, a whore, and utterly depraved. The case against Ludwig proceeds along, with Blum playing a minor role, since in reality she doesn’t have anything to do with his crimes at all. The larger story is about the story Tötges tells, the one everyone believes.
Böll’s novel has elements of an experimental mystery, much like Leonardo Sciascia’s works (find my review of Sciascia’s To Each His Own here). But it is unique in its powerful condemnation of how reckless reporting can permanently damage real human beings. It also forces us to examine our own reactions to sensationalized stories we see in the press. What are our opinions about anyone in the spotlight, from celebrities to criminals to politicians, and how do we form those opinions? Do we base them on facts, or the opinions of others on TV, anonymous blogs, random Twitter accounts, or do we just decide how we feel based on nothing at all? It’s admittedly sometimes hard to determine the facts about anything (certainly anything that becomes a media obsession) but that doesn’t excuse us when our misguided or baseless opinions cause real pain.
In the end, maybe Böll isn’t so much criticizing tabloids as he is us, or anyone who believes what they hear too easily, who doesn’t check their sources, who just doesn’t care to find out whether what they believe is true or just what they want to be true. Because as repulsive, irresponsible, and cruel as Tötges is, the real problem isn’t that he’s free to victimize an innocent person, it’s that we buy it.
So go read it. Now.
Fun fact: The full title is The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum Or, How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead