What's the Story? Truth or Dramatic Fiction?

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets ... fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
-- First sentence of the novel "Paul Clifford" by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830

Fiction writers have wide latitude to choose words that will plant scenes and situations in reader's minds and enhance the dramatic effect of the stories they are telling. We like it that way, and the above passage has inspired the Annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest with prizes for sentences that plant dramatic, fantastic, outrageous or unlikely scenes in readers' minds. (check it out at https://www.bulwer-lytton.com/)

Even song lyrics can take root in our minds. Since Christmas I have had the refrain "Do you see what I see?" (from the 1962 song by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne) dancing in my head, especially as I follow the news. News is not supposed to be fiction. We expect it to show us some reasonable representations of realities we can't experience first-hand. Yet the question nags: in the words, photos and stories of news media, do we see what others see? Do we see what's really there? Do we see the whole story or parts selected for dramatic effect?

Many news stories today are dramatic fiction with an agenda. The story of "Weapons of Mass Destruction" was designed to make us believe we must attack Iraq, and it worked.

Now consider this: "The current [Social Security] system is headed for an iceberg ... We need to establish in the public mind a key fiscal fact: right now we are on an unsustainable course ... That reality needs to be seared into the public consciousness"
-- e-mail by Peter Wehner, aide to Karl Rove, 1/5/05

Do you see what I see? Is Social Security really heading for an iceberg? Googling around the mainstream media I found two basic stories. One (already being called "Wehner's Iceberg) says roughly that this unfair program forces people to pay for benefits for possibly undeserving others is headed for disaster and will bankrupt the nation in 10 years.

The other story portrays Social Security as a self-sustaining program that protects people from destitution in old age or misfortune that will remain stable for at least another 40 years.

How do we determine which story is more plausible? Do we hear these two stories in equal measure? It appears that the recommendation to sear one "reality" into our consciousness has been adopted, with our Storyteller-in-chief turning up at the top of every newscast with stories about the crisis in Social Security. For the other story, let me suggest Paul Krugman's Jan. 11 column.

What we see, what gets planted in our minds often turns on a single word or phrase. Here's an Associated Press news story from 1/9/05: "BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The United States military said it dropped a 500-pound bomb on the wrong house outside the northern city of Mosul on Saturday, killing 5 people. The man who owned the house said the bomb killed 14 people, and an Associated Press photographer said seven of them were children. ... The U.S. military statement said ..."Multi-National Force Iraq deeply regrets the loss of possibly innocent lives.""

Do you see what I see? "Multi-National Force Iraq" suggests a different entity from 'the U.S. military'. Who's doing the bombing and who's doing the regretting? Were 14 people killed or five? Do we get to see the photographer's pictures? And why "possibly" innocent? Are they less dead if they weren't innocent? Or does "possibly" justify the bombing? Would a responsible news report say that the tsunami killed 140,000 "possibly innocent" people?

For many people in the last 50 years first-hand experience with reality and face-to-face exchanges of stories have been replaced TV shows that tell stories designed to sell advertising, ideologies or political agendas. Many people now live vicariously through TV and base their values, moral judgments and political positions on what they see there. I can't believe, for example, that the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" story would have gained any traction just after World War II -- there were too many vets around then who had been in a real war.

Certainly Bush and the neoconservatives have capitalized quite successfully on our TV culture. The stories they tell resonate with what people hear and see on TV. When Democrats try to tell stories that should resonate with real life -- jobs, health care, schools, war, environment -- they simply aren't heard.

Do you see what I see? Apparently not. Apparently about half of us accept the stories of the Bush administration as plausible, reasonable, and above criticism; the other half sees them as dramatic fictions designed to scare us into giving up our basic liberties and programs for the common good, starting immoral wars, and selling off the resources of the planet for profit.

It is a dark and stormy night, and neoconservative winds are fiercely agitating the scanty flame of democracy struggling against the darkness. ...

Where will this story lead?

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