The story none dare tell

In this comment to this post, John Quimby writes,

The people “vetting” our election haven’t been “vetted” themselves.

Try this thought on for size…

The reporters we knew and admired when we were young were educated in journalism and many of them served in the Army covering WWII. They invented broadcast news and had combat experience with average American soldiers all over the world. That experience gave them a keen sense of official BS and they weren’t afraid of the risks it took to get the story and send some truth home. They felt they owed it to the humble people they served to get it right. They knew how to tell a story.

See where I’m going?

While you’re following John’s thoughts about storytellers and stories (and please do: it’s a good thread), a few thoughts about the nature of the latter, and what any journalist, regardless of reputation and talent, will have a hard time telling.

In this post about journalism, I wrote,

The basic job of newspaper reporters is to write stories. In simplest terms, stories are interesting arrangements of facts. What makes stories interesting are: 1) protagonists (persons, groups, teams, “issues” or causes); 2) a struggle, problem or conflict of some sort; and 3) movement forward (hopefully, by not necessarily, toward a conclusion). Whether or not you agree with that formulation, what cannot be denied is the imperative. Stories are made to be interesting. It is not just coincidental that this is a purpose they share with advertising.

The story in WWII (John’s example, above) was a simple one. There were good guys (us, the Allies) and bad guys (the Axis powers). Countless war stories — good ones — came out of WWII. Those stories — along with stories about The Depression that preceded The War — were the prevailing narratives around dinner tables for kids growing up in the Fifties, when broadcast journalism was maturing under the influence of Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow and other exemplars. Wars won by everybody working together, and suffering through hardships, as happened with WWII, had many positive effects on the country and its citizens. Our fathers’ experiences in “the service” (as they called it then) during WWII made instant friends of countless strangers who had similar experiences. People meeting for the first time, regardless of class and race differences, often found common bonds in the ritual of exchanging data about membership and service in various military branches, divisions, boats, and battle fronts.

Our parents’ sacrifices gave them great moral authority — and of a kind that none of the succeeding generations would achieve again. Tom Brokaw was right to call our parents The Greatest Generation. They rose to the challenge, but they were also cast in the role.

Same with journalistic veterans of the same war.

Not only have we lost that whole generation of WWII journalists, plus many (or most) of the best of those that followed as well. Meanwhile, there is more journalism than ever, and much of it is good. Just harder to find, or to follow, in the midst of so much other stuff. Many more needles, much bigger haystack.

But the bigger problem is the lack of a single narrative, much less a heroic one. Worse, there is a narrative that needs to be woven, yet has few if any weavers, because it is not a happy one. That narrative is the inevitable decline of Pax Americana, and of our country’s ability to lead the world in the manner to which it has becomed accustomed, and which is proving ever more delusional.

This new narrative is required not only because the U.S.’s percentages of the global economy and populations are shrinking, and not only because its recent president(s) had foreign policy failures, but because what’s “super” about U.S. superpower — a near-limitless ability to make high-technology war, backed by a fighting force of finite size with few allies — is an anachronism. And it would still be an anachronism if most of the world didn’t already consider our approach to foreign relations tragic and absurd.

I’m not sure the people of any Great Nation are ever ready to face the fact that the height of their military and economic powers has passed. Or that the leadership they most need to assert is no longer only a military and economic one. But I am sure that we need leadership — journalistic as well as political — that is anchored in our true and enduring strengths as a people and as a polity.

The U.S. still stands best, and most credibly, for essential values the rest of the world desperately needs to respect: freedom, liberty, democracy, suffrage of women and minorities, and rule of law, to name just a few. The high value we place on eduction, on caring for others, on self-sacrifice, on economic well-being, on the worth of individuals, on respect for land and resources — the list goes on — are also ready-built platforms for leadership in the world.

I don’t know how to frame that new leadership narrative, much less express it. The best advice I’ve seen so far comes from George Lakoff and The Rockridge Institute; but we’re in a partisan season, and they’re naturally taking sides, lately on behalf of Barack Obama.

I believe Obama is in the best position to craft this new narrative, that his aspriational rhetoric has the best chance of transcending the partisan boundaries that divide us. But right now each remaining candidate’s focus is on beating each other rather than facing the challenge of changing our role in the world.

Obama and his people need to fight for the next nine months, and it’s likely that his rhetoric, no matter how well-expressed, will be mocked for its emptiness and the lack of track in his relatively short career. That mockery will get air time becaus we won’t be able to get out of sports and war journalism — and politics — until the election is over.

That’s when Then What? begins. I’m hoping the new president is good at telling the new story that needs to be told. But I’m not holding my breath. (Or my blather, or you wouldn’t be reading this.)


  1. Jon’s avatar

    Great post. I’m Canadian, but still appreciate the general overall malaise that affects both countries.

    I have to laugh at the irony of the misspelling of “education”, though.

    “The high value we place on eduction, on…”

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar


    Wonder if I should leave it?

    Funny that WordPress checks spelling, but I missed it anyway.

    I’d be inclined to ascribe Hidden Meaning to the oversight, but in fact my eyes flat-out suck at close range these days. I hate wearing reading glasses, but I’m making too many of these mistakes and getting too many headaches. Guess I have to break down and get some. (The storebought ones used to be almost good enough, but my eyes are too different from each other, so I need the prescription kind. Grr.)

  3. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    The journalist out of touch angle was hit on in a study (not sure if it is a book yet) that had some interesting observations on how journalist have become out of touch, living in ‘new bohemian urban areas’ and socializing more and more with a different class of people than older school folks.

    Some interesting points:

    Journalists are less likely to form families, have children, go to church, do volunteer community service, own homes and put down roots, says Brown. “How many members of the Los Angeles Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch belong to the American Legion or the Kiwanis Club or go to prayer breakfasts?

    They also self segregate into certain areas:

    “With the help of a “cluster” name supplied by Claritas, Brown placed most media employees into categories that suggest how they see the world. Journalists’ ZIP codes reveal they mostly populate neighborhoods with cluster names such as “money and brains” (two-earner couples, expensive condos or town homes, few children, their own hot tub and a yen for jazz and sailing) but avoid rural areas tagged “shotguns and pickups” (low real-estate prices, families who eat Wheaties, drink whiskey and go to auto races or bowl).”

    A similar thing has gone on in other fields. It kind of reminds me of a Tom Wolfe quote about Irish cops, now that so many are moving to suburbs and losing touch with the neighborhoods they patrol. “These days, if you want a real old-fashioned Irish cop, you hire a Puerto Rican.”

  4. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I don’t like knowing we’re going down the drain… but I do know it…

    The empire is going to die… the question is: Can we resurrect the republic before it’s too late?

    James Howard Kunstler is right went he frames the suburban sprawl as the greatest missallocation of wealth in history. The “American way of life” based on cheap gas and diesel is roaring to a close.

    What type of country do we want to be? How can we get there?

    I want to be a citizen of a country that cares about people. One that believes that all men are created equal, with certain unalienable rights that derive from respect for life.

    Respect for life in a whole sense… not some radicalized pro/anti frame.

    A country that isn’t about being on the right side. A country that isn’t about sides at all.

    A country that empowered individuals around the world will want to join. A country that represents the best in us, and a bright hope for tomorrow.

    May God forgive our sins, and bless the United States of America.

  5. John Quimby’s avatar

    Well, if the country is going to Hell…

    Dontcha want to see the commercial advertising and marketing campaign that’s going to go with it?

    Here’s a preview I co-wrote and produced with Red Rocket Productions for

  6. Chip’s avatar

    Great post
    So true … but how do we intergrate/meld the models of old broadcast (concentration of talent) with the many voices of the web?

    Dinner at your place a couple years back
    Conversation with Paul Boutin … my contention that all good writing had to be story telling, the arc, but how to pattern this to current technology, how to tie to the sound-bite model…

    Other: flight back from London
    No Country for Old men
    1) edited out some blood ( I think )
    2) small screen … movie really needs big format, the landscape is one of the characters

    Other : eyes : S..t, I’ve had mis-matched set for at least 50 yrs, therefore wear glasses (other than for reading)

  7. John Quimby’s avatar

    With apologies for blog hogging…

    Doc, I don’t know how else to get his to you…

    I was there for the premiere of “Citizen McCaw” in Santa Barbara tonight. This is the independent documentary film which chronicles events at the Santa Barbara News Press.

    The 2000 seat venue was sold out. I saw a supportive crowd which included the Mayor and City Council member Das Williams, local news and entertainment figures plus assorted Hollywood types (you can tell by the make up and ward robe) and lots of us regular people.

    Congratulations and thanks to Sam Tyler, who sat in my office all those months ago and told me he was going to go out of pocket to make this film.

    Nice work Sam.

    Lou Cannon (Biographer of Ronald Reagan) was there tonight and was in our studio recently for an interview with NPR. I hope I was able to convey the appreciation of many when I privately thanked him for speaking out.

    It’s easy to be angry about what has happened here.

    Be glad there are people who will risk everything for your right to speak, work and know what is happening in your town.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar


    Thanks for the update. REALLY wish I had been there. I do miss Santa Barbara, and the rock & roll going on there. Still, it’s good to get reports.

    Suggestion: blog it. Tell me here or by email too.

    Haven’t been following the News-Press. Should be, though. I’ll add a keyword search to the aggregator now. Thanks again for the report.

    I’m going to post something now too.

    Okay, here it is.

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