To think about the news (5): Ask, is it just a story?

It is time to ask, is it all just a story? Yes, but a story is never just a story. There are a lot of layers to stories and why and how we tell them. Once again the Mueller Report provides a window into how to understand the news, which is delivered through a cascade of stories everyday and at all hours. The coverage of the report has brought forth expanded chapters with new themes and plot lines. Last week the commentary was about how people with different points of view had taken to their corners. This week after Attorney General Barr released the redacted report the phrases commentators used to describe the activities of partisans included “shape the narrative,” “influence the narrative,” “center the narrative” and “counter narrative.” Whatever the point of view, these strategies are all attempts to “change the focus.” Whether it was a “sordid story” (Mark Shields on the NewsHour) or an “exoneration,” as numerous defenders of the administration maintained, depended on the standpoint of the storyteller.

This week is a good time to talk about stories with the celebration of two venerable cultural/religious stories – Passover and Easter. We tell stories to make sense of the world and our experience of it, first to ourselves and then to others. The purpose, depth, and texture of a story and how we present our point of view usually depends on the role we are playing at the moment – a parent, a friend, an employee, a lobbyist, a news commentator. A story conveys a view of reality, it is a representation of our identity (in the moment), and it is a tool to engage with the world. For believers, these functions are operant in the cultural and religious performances of the week’s rituals: here is how the world works, I belong to this group, and this is the language I speak. These traditional stories illustrate the human need for narrative to create order in a complex world. They integrate patterns of human social interaction shaped by the dynamics, discussed in an earlier post, of family, community, culture, religion, place, race, class, gender, and more that we recognize, and trigger appropriate responses.

This pattern seeking ability also enables us to negotiate the physical environment. Like other species, we respond to explicitly tuned signals that allow us to move through the world around us. Dogs follow their nose, dolphins feel sound, and human beings see their way around the world. Almost daily we learn something new from studies in biology, ethology, evolution, and neuroscience about how the human brain has adapted to guide a bipedal omnivore with clannish tendencies to respond to the world to support its survival. Patterns are the information bits of the stories we tell. In Mama’s Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, primatologist Franz De Waal describes how Bonobos pay attention to behavioral patterns to negotiate the rules that shape influence and power. The colony of individuals at the Burger’s Zoo in Arnhem, the Netherlands, has a story created over time to manage living together.

Over millennia human beings have told stories for the quite similar need to manage differences in power and place in and between groups. Why we tell stories and how they shape our ability to understand the social and physical world is not a simple phenomenon. We misunderstand stories by either thinking that they are true or false, but the reality is that they convey “a” truth, not the Truth. One way to understand story is to see it as a process of collecting the bits of information we find through our exploration of the world and, as Robert Caro writes in Working: Research, Interviewing, Writing, “the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is.” We have facts now, documented (and more hinted at by the thick black lines) in the Mueller Report, and are closer to a truth that is actual news we can use – noteworthy information. So the question we need to ask now about the point of view debate over the investigation is why do some want to “shape the narrative,” “influence the narrative,” “center the narrative,” or create a “counter narrative?” My opinion is that they want to shift the focus away from the quite clear rejection of the rule of law threaded throughout this story. We need to pay attention to the patterns in the Mueller Report so we can get closer to “whatever truth there is.” Even the redacted report should empower those who are concerned about the rule of law, who care about the commitment of our representatives to ‘we the people,’ and the viability of our democratic institutions.

Understanding stories, how they are used and misused is not just an interesting scientific study, or a fascinating field of interpretation in the humanities, it is essential to understanding the news and acting for the common good. Like the ancient stories commemorated this week this political story conveys beliefs and values. What are the beliefs and values of the major players in this story? What are the beliefs and values that inform the attempts to “change the focus?” We are in a time of incredible challenges to once accepted stories about power and privilege. Just think about the narratives gaining visibility – anti racism, sexual assault and gender equity, the 1% and inequality, teens leading the fight against gun violence, and climate change and species extinction. There are also powerful forces mobilized to preserve the old order. On the NewsHour Friday (4/20), David Brooks suggested that we need impartiality, that we need a referee. I don’t think so because that can depend, too, on where the umpire stands. We need to know who is telling the story and why it is being told to us. And, we need to make a choice. Our democracy is a story that we are telling; when will we come closer to truth?

JoAnn McAllister


  1. Mary Brown on April 24, 2019 at 11:28 am

    Great insight into how we use stories and how they, in turn, use us, JoAnn. We are truly in an age when understanding stories and storytellers is crucial for living a good life.

    • JoAnn McAllister on April 24, 2019 at 2:42 pm

      Thank you Mary. I learned a lot from you about storytelling when you wrote your dissertation. I hope you will share more about what you have learned, especially, as you note, what story means as we try to live a good life. As a student of women’s lives, I am sure you have thought about the social and political challenges to women’s stories today. Certainly different challenges than those faced by the women you profiled in the 19th century. Good to hear from you, JoAnn

  2. Inna Learn on April 24, 2019 at 9:57 pm

    Wonderful description of evolution in human’s view of a truth and the truth. There is no pure impartiality because human interactions are influenced by implicit beliefs; that is different from evaluating a sport game where rules are explicit and agreed upon by all players. The very fact of telling a story implies a reason or motivation. A change of focus is one of the driving forces of fresh stories. A change of focus may alter the importance of one’s intersterests. For example, the stories about science in robotics or computerization of work environment. What is the value of each in different contexts? And, can people manage further developments in these areas without destroying civilization and sacrificing each individual person for the benefit of many?

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