Story vs. Reality

Bill Moyers on Rev. Wright (via Dave):

  Behold the double standard: John McCain sought out the endorsement of John Hagee, the war-mongering Catholic-bashing Texas preacher who said the people of New Orleans got what they deserved for their sins. But no one suggests McCain shares Hagee’s delusions, or thinks AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality. Pat Robertson called for the assassination of a foreign head of state and asked God to remove Supreme Court justices, yet he remains a force in the Republican religious right. After 9/11 Jerry Falwell said the attack was God’s judgment on America for having been driven out of our schools and the public square, but when McCain goes after the endorsement of the preacher he once condemned as an agent of intolerance, the press gives him a pass.

  Jon Stewart recently played a tape from the Nixon White House in which Billy Graham talks in the oval office about how he has friends who are Jewish, but he knows in his heart that they are undermining America. This is crazy; this is wrong — white preachers are given leeway in politics that others aren’t.

  Which means it is all about race, isn’t it? Wright’s offensive opinions and inflammatory appearances are judged differently. He doesn’t fire a shot in anger, put a noose around anyone’s neck, call for insurrection, or plant a bomb in a church with children in Sunday school. What he does is to speak his mind in a language and style that unsettle some people, and says some things so outlandish and ill-advised that he finally leaves Obama no choice but to end their friendship. We are often exposed us to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I’ve never seen anything like this ? this wrenching break between pastor and parishioner before our very eyes. Both men no doubt will carry the grief to their graves. All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony of the non-stop media grinder consumes us all and prevents an honest conversation on race. It is the price we are paying for failing to heed the great historian Jacob Burckhardt, who said “beware the terrible simplifiers”.

Well, there were stories at their times about Fallwell, Robertson and McCain & Hagee. They weren’t as big as Obama and Wright, but they were still stories.

Indeed, we need honest conversation sabout race. I thought Barack Obama’s speech on the subject right after the Wright mess first broke was an excellent opener for lots of conversations, many of which are still going on.

We need honest conversations about gender too. A couple days ago my wife caught an interview on NPR with a voter in North Carolina who regretted that the choice among democratic presidential candidates had come down to a black man and a woman — and that he’d prefer the former over the latter. Of course, that was just one voter, but still: what does that say? Other things being equal, is sexism a bigger handicap to a female candidate than race is to a black candidate? Before I heard that, I hadn’t considered the possibility. Nor the possibility that voters in the U.S. might be less favoring of women candidates than voters in Israel, the U.K., Germany and India, all of which have elected women as heads of state. Something more to think and talk about, if we can possibly get past the personalities at hand.

The Wright-Obama story, however, isn’t just about race. It’s about stories. It’s about the reason we need to “beware the terrible simplifiers”. Because simplification is what journalists do.

Even the best reporters don’t just communicate facts. They organize those facts into stories. That’s what they’re assigned to write, or to show on TV, or report on the radio, and that’s what they do. And they do it because stories are by nature interesting. They are, I believe, the base format of human interest. Here’s how I described that format in an earlier post:

  To understand journalism, you need to know the nature of The Story. Every story has three elements: 1) a character, 2) a problem, and 3) movement toward resolution. The character could be a person, a cause, a ball club — doesn’t matter, as long as the reader (or the viewer, or the listener) can identify with it (or him, or her, or them). The problem is what keeps us reading forward, turning the pages, or staying tuned in. It’s what keeps things interesting. And the motion has to vector toward resolution, even if the conclusion is far off in the future.

In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Daniel Henninger asks, Where are Obama’s Friends? The story, in Henninger’s words: “supporters who let Barack Obama hang out to dry”. (He doesn’t mention Bill Moyers, who certainly qualifies now.)

We need to remember that all stories are simplifications. Sometimes they are terrible, and sometimes not. But still, they always veer toward the simple, because that’s what’s most interesting.

Back on December 11, 2005 — long before there were blogs, but not long after I learned to write in HTML — I posted Microsoft + Netscape: Why the Press Needs to Snap Out of its War-Coverage Trance. (It was one of the many articles I failed to sell to a magazine, but still managed to post on the Web.) The bottom lines:

  The Web is a product of relationships, not of victors and victims. Not one dime Netscape makes is at Microsoft’s expense. And Netscape won’t bleed to death if Microsoft produces a worthy browser. The Web as we know it won’t be the same in six weeks, much less six months or six years. As a “breed of life,” it is original, crazy and already immense. It is not like anything. To describe it with cheap-shot war and sports metaphors is worse than wrong — it is bad journalism.

Actually, it’s typical journalism. More than a dozen years later, it’s a lesson I’m still learning.

14 comments

  1. Mike Warot’s avatar

    The problem with Hillary isn’t that she’s a she… it’s that she’s shifty and spineless and only in it for power. It’s the same reason we hated Nixon, and continue to hate Cheney for.

  2. PXLated’s avatar

    I have to agree with Mike, it THE woman.

  3. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    Glass ceilings remain intact because some variation of “…but not THIS woman” is repeated, prevails and is acceptable.

  4. Harl Delos’s avatar

    They’ve figured out Senator Obama’s vulnerability. They can attack him, but he can’t attack back, because that brings up the image of the “scarey black man”, which would cost him a lot of votes.

    The answer for Senator Obama is to get back on message, that message being, “I’m not about policies. I’m happy to let the other guy get the credit for coming up with the good idea, as long as it’s a win-win solution that works for everybody. What I’m about is a change in the way we conduct politics in this country, a way that emphasizes cooperation, and moves – by baby steps if necessary – towards better public policies.”

    Programmers refer to that as “stepwise refinement”, but Barack probably ought not use that term, because they’d call him on using elitist language. Of course, Senator Clinton used the phrase “cognitive dissonance” on “Morning Joe” this morning, and nobody attacked her for using elitist language.

    Why is it that Hillary Clinton reminds me of Lucille Van Pelt, crying, “I can hit you, but you can’t hit me back, ’cause I’m a guuuuuurl. Nyah, nyah!”

  5. Keith Dick’s avatar

    From your friendly proofreader — wasn’t that Microsoft-Netscape article from 1995, not 2005?

  6. John Handelaar’s avatar

    Strictly speaking, Germany and the UK (and New Zealand) didn’t elect female heads of state, just heads of government.

    Though the UK and New Zealand do have a woman for head of state, nobody voted for her.

    </anal_retentive>

    Ireland’s now on its second successive female head of state (she’s halfway through her second and final term). A man hasn’t held the position since 1990.

  7. GeekMommy’s avatar

    And I have to *disagree* with Mike… because if it were about “this woman” then Pat Schroeder wouldn’t have gotten crucified for crying when she withdrew from a Presidential race.

    Why aren’t more women running for the oval office? It’s not like they aren’t represented in the congress, senate and governors’ offices across the country… it’s because they will always be described as “this woman”.

    I respect the hell out of both Obama and Clinton for running despite knowing that every time someone brought up their stances on the issues, someone else would only be looking at the color of their skin or their gender.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    For what it’s worth, I know a number of people who know Hillary personally. All of them are crazy about her.

    I can’t say the same for all the people I know who also know Barack Obama.

    Mike, what makes you say “she’s shifty and spineless and only in it for power” ?

    How is anybody with the gall to run for President not in it for the power, at least in some sense?

    Here is a test: Is it possible to ignore Hillary’s gender or Barack’s race?

    We can ignore both with McCain, no? What does that say?

    I have what I regard as a positive racial reason for favoring Barack: I want us to get past race as a divisive issue, and I think electing him would be a good way to do that. But::: Is that not also a kind of racism? I have to wonder.

    Race shouldn’t matter. Gender shouldn’t matter. But they do.

    It’s hard to celebrate what makes us unique without dividing us on the same grounds. Easier said than done.

  9. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Doc, it seems to me that Hillary is PANDERING 24/7/365… the latest Gas Tax Holiday stunt is yet another attempt to buy off voters with their own money. I wish I could believe it’s going to be ok when she uses the Nuclear option to steal the election at the convention… but I know better.

    My favorite candidate, the one who has helped us slowly transition away from the Federal Reserve Note (by stealth in 1985)… Ron Paul, has been successfully ignored to death by the corporate driven media.

    Barack really was lesser of evils until the Wright thing broke the first time… his dealing with it head on, and Writing His Own Speech really did it for me. It takes time and effort to get things just right, and he nailed it. He’s smart, and he cares about doing things the right way, instead of the easy way.

    That’s why we’re both voting for Obama in the morning.

    –Mike–

  10. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Well, I’ve voted for Obama… and now it’s time explain why a bit more.

    The Clinton’s believe in Triangulation as a way to win. The idea is that there is a spectrum of opinion about any given subject, the best way to make a deal is to stake out a position the proper distance from the extremes, and get to a happy medium.

    Triangulation is worship of a false god. It’s profane, and profoundly misguided.

    People have opinions on a wide variety of subjects. There’s no logical consistency to it, let alone any kind of continuous spectrum to choose from. There is no “liberal” mindset. It exists only in the pigeonhole that people try to push us into.

    From this, it’s no small stretch to assume that there is no single rational model of the world. We don’t all think about things the same way. We’re all different (but I’m not!)

    Instead of worrying about the right thing to do, the triangulation cultist worry about where they are relative to the mythical “mainstream” and try to maintain the strategic position relative to it.

    If we all believe that slavery was a good thing, Hillary would be for cutting taxes on the chains because the price of steel from China went up… she’d propose a slave chain tax holiday. The issue of slavery won’t be part of the picture.

    Think I’m being absurd? Well, we’re all slaves to our cars, and Hillary just proposed a tax on the fuel for our cars. She doesn’t even consider that perhaps there’s a bigger issue to be resolved here… the “non-negotiable American Way of Life”

    We need leaders who don’t just triangulate, we need to move away from the myopic vision of politics as usual, and to step back and look at the big picture, and least try to do the right thing, for a change.

    –Mike–

  11. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Ugh, I hate those typos that don’t show up until after you’re committed.

    Hillary proposed a tax holiday on our fuel for cars…

    I hope everyone can forgive that, and the other typo(s).

    –Mike–

  12. Stephen Lewis’s avatar

    I had written some tıme ago at hakpaksak.wordpress.com about how Doc had dragged me kicking and screaming first onto the internet (compuserve) and later into blogging (hakpaksak and http://www.bubkes.org), and finally ınto the world of podcasting. In turn, I recommend to all and sundry that Bill Moyers Journal be among the essential podcasts they listen to. Moyers’s honesty, insight, and integrity-based progressive politics sharpen as the years pass. What a pity we do not have politcians or a sufficient number of mainstream journalists who measure up to him. SL

  13. John Quimby’s avatar

    For centuries, white men of a certain class lit cigars in the drawing room and discussed politics. No women or colored people need be considered. Times change. Reasons change.

    My mother is 85 years old. She grew up in Washington DC and has been interested in poiitics her entire life. We spoke about the election and Hillary Clinton recently. She said, “you know I met Elanor Roosevelt when I was a girl. I loved her – she was my inspiration. I have always hoped I would see a woman become president before I die. But not THAT woman.”

    Voters must discriminate. We must look at our ballot and say, “I choose this one. Not that one.” Discrimination by gender or race is one thing. Discrimination by reason is another. And It can be a very fine line.

    People are weighing their choices carefully today and this suggests new and deeper reasoning by large numbers of people. I don’t suggest we’re blind to color or gender but something fundamental has changed because we’re not making our choice between two white men in this election.

    I think one candidate has done a good job of expressing the idea that we can vote – not for what we are – but for what we believe in. It’s not about race. It’s not about gender. That is the difference.

  14. Andy Jackson’s avatar

    The analogy between McCain/Hagee and Obama/Wright doesn’t quite hold up. McCain didn’t sit in Hagee’s church for 20 years listening to sermons.

    Seeking an endorsement from a questionable character is orders of magnitude different from being a follower of a questionable character. In fact, the second option begs questions of Obama’s character.

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