Newspapers, you see, do not simply give you the news, as they are said to, in the way that you are given a bunch of apples at the grocer's or fresh fish at the market. You would recognize a Granny Smith or a slab of hake no matter where you found it. But how do you tell news from anything else? News is simply what the newspapers tell you it is.
On its front pages, the Times could as well serve up Icelandic folk dancing or the Pope's views on Vatican II, for all it really matters to you.
Once something shows up in the papers, it immediately becomes of the greatest importance to every literate adult in the area—and most of the illiterates. They forget their own private affairs and give themselves over to earnest cogitation on the great world. Before you know it, there is a full‐blown panic, with all the good citizens looking for demons under their beds.
Such was the case with witchcraft in seventeenth‐century Europe. All told, the European witch hunts killed between 40,000 and 100,000 accused witches, the Salem witch trials in 1692 in Colonial America being the best known today. The Great Burning, as it is now called, had all the hallmarks of an episode of mass mania. There was popular hysteria and there were unpopular victims; there were sensational pamphlets, misbegotten theories, sex, lies, and … devilry.3 It could have been mistaken for a session of Congress.
In his studies of the witch hunts, historian Norman Cohn thinks he sees a single persistent theme of paranoia ...