February 19, 2005

Storytelling and the Innocence of Eason

" Eason Jordan does not believe the U.S. military is trying to kill journalists. Mr. Jordan simply pointed out the facts..." -- Original CNN "clarification"

Submitted for your approval:
1. Journalism is the assembling and telling of stories.
2. At bottom, journalists are story tellers.
3. Better journalists are better story tellers.

"Call me Karnog."

JOURNALISM MAY WELL be the real "oldest profession." Eons ago in the dawn time, the first news reports were stories told about the hunt when the hunters returned to camp. Some hunters were better at telling stories than others. They put in facts, they named names, they had sources, they knew when to drop in human interest and local color.

After a time, the tribe shut the other hunters up. "Just let Karnog tell it." And Karnog's stature rose in the tribe. He was valued. He got better cuts of the meat. He got the plumper women. He started to have 'visions' about the world as it really was behind the curtain of the senses. He gave the tribe "all the news that was fit to chant;" he brought them "the word."

As their tribal memory, Karnog was protected by the other hunters. After all, he had the power to make them look either good or bad; to make the tribe like or despise them. In some cases, Karnog could assemble un-named sources ('The Gods') and have chiefs run out of tribal office. Karnog became the gatekeeper. Many in the tribe wanted to be a Karnog but, if they couldn't, they'd be a great audience.

Karnog kept and expanded his power by "improving" his stories. If a hunt was a little boring, no problem. Karnog would embroider it. Just a little. Just a very little bit. Perhaps he'd add a fact from here and another fact from there, a source on this and a source on that. After several iterations of this, the story Karnog told about the hunt had a lot of facts in it from other stories. That really didn't matter because everything in the story was a fact. The story had become false, but all the facts were true.

And the crowd Karnog was preaching too, since they were of his tribe, loved his new slightly embroidered story even more. They'd ask him to tell it again the next time they were all together and he would, embroidering it just a little more, just a very little more. And so it went down through the centuries until you had, well, the first collection of war stories in the history of journalism, The Illiad, from the 8th century BC.

Fast forward 2,800 years. Eason Jordan is telling his Iraq war stories for the Nth time to a meeting of his Transnational Tribe in Davos, Switzerland. He's got a lot of these stories and his Tribe loves to hear him tell them because he can tell them their way. He is of them and he knows what they want to hear. He's told these stories before, a few times in public, but probably many more times over drinks and dinner around the world. And as usual, he adds just a stitch or two of extra embroidery.

Edward Morrissey tracks Jordan's the public history of embroidery in Eason's Fable.

"There were two other instances of Jordan alleging the targeting of journalists for death by unspecified military forces, from 1993 (Somalia) and 2002 (Afghanistan).

Jordan had also accused the Israeli military of deliberately targeting journalists for death in October 2002 during a News Xchange Forum appearance overseas.

Jordan had made similar allegations to the ones he made at Davos less than three months earlier at a News Xchange forum in Portugal, and on the record. The British newspaper the Guardian reported that Jordan told the global news executives assembled there that 'Actions speak louder than words. The reality is that at least 10 journalists have been killed by the US military, and according to reports I believe to be true journalists have been arrested and tortured by US forces.' "

Nothing of Jordan's "Fable" ever appeared in the public news arena because it wasn't actually a news item, it was, as Morrissey intuits, a "fable" -- i.e. something between a legend and a lie. The thing to note here is that, in the telling and retelling of the tale, Jordan had probably come to believe that it was indeed true even though he knew that there were no real facts to back him up. Once something becomes a fable and you are the creator, the story becomes something that should be true.

Every Karnog knows that if a fable plays well to your tribe, and if the only ones who will hear it are members of your tribe, well, it doesn't hurt to embroider it a little the next time you tell it. And then the next time embroider a little more. Everyone loves this fable so you ramp it up a little more, and a little more and suddenly you've got a CIA/Special Forces Black-Ops in Iraq lurking about with bullets with journalist's names on them. (Hey, it could happen, right?) But suddenly this becomes a little too big and a little too broad and it sounds, to you, pretty much like the last time you told it only better and... Then someone who is not of The Tribe happens to hear it and stands up and says "What did you say? What? Do you have any proof?" And you realize that you don't. So you try to walk back the cat but... Oh my, that's a video tape running......

Eason Jordan will never write an Illiad. If anything, he'll get a few hundred grand for an autobiography as one of his parting gifts from mainstream media. He'll write it and it will be forgotten in six months. He'll get a sinecure at something like the Aspen Institute and have, well, annual international seminars where he can meet the members of his tribe that he last met in Davos. They'll reminisce about Jordan's fable and his small fall over drinks and dinners and Jordan, if he is really sure of the inner circle of his tribe, will tell the story he told in Davos again... and again he will embroider it. Just a little.

Why wouldn't he? Embroidery around the facts until the embroidery overwhelms the facts is how Jordan rose within the Transnational Tribe. In a very real way, Jordan probably believed what he said when he said it. He'd become convinced of his own embroidery. Good story tellers need to be convinced of the truth of their story. it is how they convince others. Story telling -- with a bit of embroidery -- it is what journalists do. It is what they have always done.

If you think about it, that's what you do too. We all embroider the stories of our lives in front of our tribe. The difference is that our personal legends and private fables can't shape the fate of nations. Those of our global news Karnogs can.

Posted by Vanderleun at February 19, 2005 9:41 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

If only the stories they told were true...

Posted by: Final Historian at February 18, 2005 1:17 PM

This is the best explanation of the main stream news media I've ever heard :).


Posted by: Mamapajamas at February 19, 2005 12:42 PM