Dan Rather is one of the most famous and highly respected journalists in the US, having served for decades as the anchor of CBS Evening News. He left the network in 2013 but maintains his image as a serious independent commentator on the news.
Like most public celebrities today, Rather stakes out his ground on important current topics by tweeting. Commenting on the spat between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders that dominated the news cycle last week, Rather tweeted: “A classic Russian ploy is to sow division and distrust between natural allies. So when you see overblown outrage trending on Twitter, ask yourself WWPW (what would Putin want) and maybe breathe and let the hashtag pass.”
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In his Twitter profile, Rather calls himself a “journalist, storyteller, and lifelong reader.” The tweet cited above, seeking to blame Vladimir Putin for the squabble between two progressive Democrats, appears more to reflect Rather’s new vocation as a storyteller rather than his image of a journalist. Instead of citing facts, which journalists are expected to do, he appeals to one of the favorite storylines of recent times and attempts to give it a new twist.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Someone who uses his superior knowledge of things people have done in the past to make people in the present believe — at least for the time it takes to tell the story — ideas that stem exclusively from the creative storyteller’s imagination.
Good storytelling requires a strong but not necessarily carefully reasoned logical thread. The logic must be recognizable, potentially plausible but not too obvious. Stories need not be true, but in the telling they must contain a series of discernable logical connections. For example, offering hints that one of the characters has a serious flaw makes it easy for the reader to associate errors or misdeeds that occur later in the story with that character. A well developed story allows the public to perceive different types of flaws in multiple characters before drawing conclusions about accountability for dramatic developments in the plot.
A clever storyteller capable of managing suspense may suggest logical connections that will subsequently be undermined by more compelling connections revealed later, creating dramatic turning points in the plot.
Thus, the value of any story lies in the associations, connections and plausible links it creates in the listener’s mind as the story unfolds. A good storyteller always wants the audience to believe that the tale could actually have happened as described, even if it is far from any known truth. It must simply be plausible within its own pseudo-logical framework.
To account for a very factual but mysterious episode in the ongoing plot of the Democratic party’s electoral politics in 2020, Dan Rather offers us a new narrative which he bases on an existing framework the media have inculcated in people’s minds for the past three years. It goes like this: If something unexpected and disturbing happens — such as the unimaginable election of that paragon of hyperreality, Donald Trump in 2016 — Americans, in their unfailing commitment to democracy, are too innocent to have done it to themselves. The Russians must have made it happen.
Dan Rather has even taken the trouble to invent what he expects people to take as an officially sanctioned meme: “WWPW (what would Putin want).” Although certainly derived from what has become among Christian fundamentalists a slogan to guide an individual’s moral decisions, WWJD — “What would Jesus do?” — Rather’s guideline doesn’t seek to identify an actual deed. Rather than answering the question of what Putin would “do,” it only requires imagining what he might “want” to be done.
For storytellers wishing to share ideas with the public, Twitter, with its constraint on the number of characters, offers the singular advantage of providing an immediate excuse for not having to explain one’s meaning or the process of one’s thought. Tweets are to storytelling what haiku is to epic poetry. They allow the author to suggest an atmosphere accompanied by intriguing connections that glance at the deepest mysteries of life.
But tweets serve another purpose. Because of their intended echo effect (retweeting), they reveal very real social and cultural shifts. Twitter storytellers share and spread easy-to-consume beliefs that need not be elaborated beyond a few hundred characters. By suggesting, as Dan Rather does, that WWPW might solve the mystery of what happened between Warren and Sanders, the storyteller demonstrates his adherence to the kind of simplistic moral reasoning associated with traditional melodrama.
Whereas tragedy delineates complex motivation, melodrama relies on exposing and highlighting the effects produced by evil actors whose presence contaminates the purity of the lives of the ordinary, but fundamentally good people who occupy the foreground of the story. Tragedy thrives on ambiguity, melodrama on the reduction of meaning.
But if WWPW is the basis of the story Rather is telling, what does he expect us to imagine as the plot? He invokes the idea of a “ploy,” a word etymologically related to “play” and nowadays semantically related to “plot.” Does Rather even have a plot in mind? If we try to imagine a credible scenario, leading for example to a second Mueller investigation, it might read like this: Vladimir Putin has been surveilling private email from the Warren campaign. He gets wind of a rumor about a suspect sentence Sanders may have uttered that sounds like a betrayal of everything Democrats are expected to believe about gender equality.
Knowing how sensitive Democrats are to this issue and how eager news networks are to highlight unsuspected conflict, Putin finds a way of subtly suggesting to four members of the Warren campaign to contact CNN on the eve of the monumental final debate before the first primary, which will be scripted and produced by CNN.
Putin’s plan couldn’t fail. A scandal was born. A rift appeared in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. CNN’s ratings skyrocketed. And Vladimir Putin, who authored the story, could sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
The word “story” in English derives from the French word, “histoire” which means both “story” and “history.” In other words, the French, unlike English speakers, don’t think of history merely as a scientific discipline that relies on a set of verified facts that can be constructed into a narrative. It is also the narrative itself. Historians sift through multiple stories, seeking facts that contribute to a more complex narrative of a people, a land, a culture and the range of both realistic and fantasized beliefs that people have about what was done in the past. In short, historians are storytellers with a concern for not going too far beyond the probable facts gleaned from the variety of stories told.
In humanity’s long history of storytelling, literary critics and philosophers have speculated about what constitutes a story and whether laws exist explaining how stories are constructed. This has led to speculation about the number of possible plots or storylines. Some, for example, say there are only six types of stories, others say three or seven, and some say many, many more.
But what about the aims of storytelling? Do they vary throughout history? Traditional storytelling had three essential aims: helping people make sense of the observable world, providing them with a varied view of human relations and constructing a collective memory that helped explain current institutions and hierarchies. Stories thus fall into basically three categories: foundational, moral and mythical. Mythical storytelling includes the notion of entertainment but usually accompanies it with considerations borrowed from the foundational and moral objectives of storytelling.
That, in any case, is how storytelling functioned before the age of technology. Even written stories were transmitted to most of the population orally. Now, in the age of supposed universal literacy, television and the internet, storytelling has become something very different. The objectives of stories today, in a society that thinks of itself as democratic and relies on electronic entertainment media, have produced four dominant types of stories that capture people’s attention: Ideological, electoral, commercial and narcissistic.
As categories, ideological and electoral go together. Commercial and narcissistic also form a complementary group. Ideology seeks to instill and perpetuate the idea of personal authenticity or the value of the ego. It links with the electoral component that dominates political storytelling: the elaboration of public policy framed not in terms of problems to be solved but rather in terms of personal competitions. Commercial and narcissistic storytelling, focused on individuals whose actions and purchasing power defines their identity, address the foundational myths of the consumer society.
Both CNN and Dan Rather, in their attempt to give meaning through storytelling to the Warren-Sanders question, have engaged in electoral storytelling, a mode that becomes dominant in the runup to major elections. It buttresses the permanent ideological storytelling that works in the background and seeks to flatter individual voters, convincing them that they — rather than unseen oligarchies and lobbyists — are the ones who choose and their government and guide (through polls) how policy is elaborated.
Humanity has always lived for stories, but the stories we get — especially in the consumer society — are often far less innocent than they seem.
[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.