It is Saturday morning, overcast and momentarily temperate. This morning I’ve got a cup of Eight O’Clock coffee — Brazilian Breakfast — and a copy of the Wall Street Journal. I am reading an editorial by Lance Morrow.
Morrow comes to us after a long, honorable stint at Time Magazine. He was writing copy at Time when that magazine was religiously read by anyone who aspired to be sentient. Morrow starts by saying that today “Americans grope for the truth in a labyrinth of outlandish story lines.”
“Since the time of Herodotus, history has been shaped less by facts than by half-truths, rumors, outright lies, ideologies, daydreams and ardent misconceptions … Anyone trying to understand the American crisis should think about the trouble story telling gets people into.”
Morrow then recounts the competing story lines from the Civil War — the South fighting to protect their own way of life; Abraham Lincoln fighting to abolish slavery. “Their stories so mutually contradictory that the entire country went into convulsions…”
Then he moves to the civil rights movement that shaped “the country’s moral, political and cultural drama, not only in the 60s, but in its evolution over the next half century.”
“The civil rights morality play, unambiguous and righteous in its story lines, succeeded almost too well in its effect. It offered a titanic clash of archetypes. A consensus of the storytellers ordained that the Good Guys were of one type, the pure of heart, the selfless elites … The Bad Guys represented another type. They were the rednecks, bigots and white supremecists.”
Morrow moves on down the line by saying, “They (the rednecks) became, in the fullness of time and in the eyes of the left, the followers of Mr. Trump.”
I don’t completely disagree with Morrow’s narrative that history is shaped by ideological half-truths and clashing story lines. But now, these days, our news delivery system is designed to enhance the ideological and the “outlandish story lines.”
When I was growing up the “evening news” was 30 minutes of flat, unemotional reading — one remembers Walter Cronkite recounting that day’s natural (and unnatural) disasters from around the world. Cronkite, wearing his thick, Bakelite-black reading glasses was reliably boring.
Somewhere along the line, perhaps when CNN came on the scene in 1980, it was decided that the “news” could actually make money if it was marginally interesting. And so the repackaging of the news began with our very own Ted Turner.
Turner’s 24 hour news coverage had to be interesting and so we got the concept of “Breaking News” that would usually include breaking stories like, “Christians Celebrate Christmas” and “Titanic Sinks 102 Years Ago.”
CNN also brought in beautiful women who read the news all the while giving us a little bit of leg and a breezy, conversational style that put the poker-faced John Chancellor, Frank Reynolds and David Brinkley in the dog-house. All of which was fine until these beautiful newsreaders decided they had to transmute everything that happened that day into a larger ideological story.
And so CNN’s formula was quickly followed by Fox and MSNBC. And sure enough, those who stuck with the old format — newspapers in general — began to lose their readers and wane in importance. Newspapers went from collectively earning $60 billion to $20 billion in a span of 15 years. While in 2020 CNN earned $715 million in profit on revenues of $1.6 billion.
In an earlier WSJ editorial Morrow said that “performative politics and media prey on the uninformed mind. The danger is that, in time, those ways will supplant what we used to recognize as reality and, in its place, install their theatrical and sinister and essential cartoonish ideas.”
Morrow went on to say that “politics and media are co-producers of the immense 21st century moral circus.” And he is right to write that ideologues have shoved aside those who are ambivalent, unsure, wanting to hear both sides and, above all, knowing that “many decisions in life — most perhaps — are difficult and may involve 48/52 calls, even 49/51.”
All of us love a story; and we are ready to believe that yesterday’s train wreck in Bangladesh has larger meaning. But that doesn’t mean that the train wreck is the fault of Joe Biden’s foreign policy. It doesn’t mean that somehow the real problem originated with Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump. It doesn’t necessarily mean there was a conspiracy among terrorists.
Sometimes a train wreck is just a train wreck.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime residentof Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org