Rebecca Solnit on the Responsibility of Journalists to Challenge the Status Quo & Rewrite the World’s Broken Stories

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Humans are hardwired to tell stories.  Because of our superlative intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities, we seek to make meaning from chaos.  Whether we’re telling a story about a disastrous blind date or the Geneva peace talks, we organize events using a logical narrative arc.  Rather than describe every detail of a scene, we choose what to omit and what to keep.  Storytelling is the art of selection.  If we were recounting a blind date, for example, we wouldn’t bore our listener with the clink of champagne glasses or the color of the waiter’s bow tie or an exhaustive inventory of the Merlot’s every flavor and note; we’d focus on what was relevant to the central plot.  If the story of our blind date was the story of yet another failed attempt to find love, we’d emphasize our date’s flaws: his too-confident demeanor, his obnoxious habit of always redirecting the conversation to himself— not the seductive scent of his cologne. 

In real life, it’s often hard to discern meaning: there’s no central conflict, no systematic sequence of events, no easy-to-follow arc.  Sometimes the boyfriend we thought would be our chief love interest turns out to be a passing fling; sometimes an interminable three hours on the phone with Comcast has no bearing on our life’s larger plot.  But in a story, every element performs an essential part.  A description of character, a specific sequencing of scenes, a use of one word instead of endless others: all are deliberate choices on the part of the writer.  Everything, therefore, is meaningful.

But a story is just that, a story— not an objective representation of truth.  As British philosopher Alain De Botton so astutely observed, stories “omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”  Storytelling is ultimately a kind of manipulation.  Just as a photographer artfully arranges his frame, foregrounding his subject and relegating other aesthetically-pleasing but not-so-important objects to the background, the storyteller emphasizes certain things while downplaying or entirely neglecting others.  He zooms in and out.  But just as a photograph can only capture a small snapshot of a scene within its frame, a story is just one person’s perspective— it’s a version of reality, not reality itself. 

Stories may only represent a portion of reality, but they determine our collective experience.  Public storytellers like journalists tell the stories that dictate how we see the world.  In her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit argues journalists have a responsibility to rewrite our culture’s broken stories.  Why?  Because if they change their stories, they can change the world. 

In “Break the Story,” one of the collection’s most insightful essays, Solnit uses a sharp-witted play on words to suggest journalists have a duty not only to break stories in the traditional sense, but to shake up the status quo:

“‘Break the story’ is a line journalists use to mean getting the scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance.  When you report on any event, no matter how large or small— a presidential election, a school board meeting— you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened.  But, of course, stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out.  The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.  Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories.  Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday.  It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.”

My favorite English professor used to say there’s two levels to every novel: a narrative and a story.  The narrative lies on the surface of plot, character, setting.  To get to the story, you have to plunge beneath what is said and dive into the depths of what is implied.  This is just as true in real life.  Just as we must read between the lines to get the real story, we must shovel away the dirt of our socially-sanctioned stories to unearth truth.  Rather than simply perpetuate our culture’s most enduring myths, journalists have an obligation to question the very frameworks on which they depend.  Too often the stories we tell go unexamined.  And, too often, we only hear stories that reinforce rather than challenge.  While certain stories dominate headlines, other more pressing issues get little coverage, suppressed in shame and secrets, either spoken in whispers or completely ignored. 

What stories are heard and what stories are silenced largely depends on who’s in power.  Take terrorism and domestic violence.  Though the fear-mongering media might have us believe terrorism is the most urgent issue of our times, terrorism claims very few American lives.  In contrast, domestic violence kills nearly a thousand women every year.  To put the scope of the issue in perspective, between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; in that same time period, 11, 766 American women were murdered by current or ex-partners.  That’s nearly double the number of troops who died during the war.  As Solnit writes:

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.  The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture.  We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.”  However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.  And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage.  They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date.  They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.  Why does the media obediently hype terrorism, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about a thousand a year?  How do you break the story about what really threatens and kills us?

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Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them.  Break the story.  Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.”

So why is it that we speak so often of the improbable event of dying in a terrorist attack and so seldom of the very real threat of being killed at the hands of an intimate loved one?  In the end, society will only endorse the stories that maintain the status quo.  The baseless story that terrorism is the greatest threat to national security identifies a common enemy, breeds fear and paranoia and makes the populace easier to control.  Such a story upholds the power of the powerful.  If we’re too busy talking about terrorism, we’re not talking about rising income inequality or the disappearing middle class or mounting college tuition costs.  The story of epidemic domestic violence, however, exposes the serious problems underlying our power structure.  If we were to examine why nearly 40% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, we’d have to rethink the damaging myths we propagate about romantic love: maybe a suitor who immediately showers you with adoration, for example, is not a fairytale prince but inappropriately obsessed; maybe a man who texts constantly wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing is not head-over-heels in love, but controlling and potentially dangerous.  We’d have to rethink how we teach boys to be men: the ways we make excuses for their bad behavior, the ways we encourage their aggressiveness and entitlement.  Indeed, we’d have to rethink society itself. 

The widespread occurrence of rape is yet another story our culture silences.  When we do discuss sexual assault, our tendency is to distrust the woman.  The prevailing belief is women lie about rape and make accusations either to exact revenge or get attention.  The narrative is women are spiteful and vindictive; the story is an alarming number of men rape and never face prosecution:

“Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives.  For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general.  This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women.  In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy.  But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot).”

George Orwell once said “good prose is a window pane”: when a reader looks out the window of a finely-crafted sentence, he should more clearly see the world.  Plainness and preciseness formed the pillars of Elements of Style, his definitive guide to writing well.  To his timeless advice, Solnit adds writers should construct their own windows rather than look through other people’s.  A good writer is a freethinker.  Never will he mindlessly conform to popular opinion or march with the masses in neat little rows.  Instead, he will dispel the myths that sedate us in a stupor of inaction and challenge his moment’s status quo:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view.  News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo…This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian.  You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.”

For more from our era’s most passionate defender of democracy, read Solnit on the impotence of anger, the importance of calling things by their true names, and the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history.  If you want to delight in even more of Solnit’s lyrical language, meander through her lovely meditations on walking as a political act and walking as a means of replenishing the soul and reinvigorating the mind.

Ted Gup on Facts, Truth & the Value of Not Having an Opinion

If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed.  It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed,” the sage Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote.  Nearly two millennia later, Charles Darwin, a naturalist whose formulation of the theory of evolution made him intimately familiar with the dangers preconceptions posed to truth, proclaimed: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  Unparalleled genius of physics Steven Hawking agreed.  Intelligence, he held, was not the firm, unyielding belief in one’s convictions but an openness, an inquisitiveness, an ability to “adapt to change.”

During our divisive political climate where parties are more polarized than they’ve been in 150 years and everyone seems to be certain of the correctness of their side of the debate, there’s sadly been a decline in our willingness to change.  Opinions are no longer open to reasoning or refutation or facts but have solidified into the intransigence of dogma and the fervor of party politics.  No longer are we open to listening to opposing points-of-view: when confronted with a fact that undermines our position or threatens our worldview, we question its legitimacy, accuse it of being “unreliable.”  A “fact” that contradicts our position is not a fact but a dubious piece of dis-info.  In an era when Oxford English dictionaries named “post-truth” word of the year, it seems objective facts matter less than maintaining our subjective beliefs.  But as Czech novelist Milan Kundera elucidates, an opinion is merely the “hypothesis we favor…imperfect, probably transitory, which only very limited minds can declare to be truth or certainty.”  Despite the frenzied zeal with which we defend them, our opinions, we forget, are just that- opinions, nothing more.

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For journalist Ted Gup, this is the greatest tragedy of our age.  Too many of us are so completely convinced of our opinions that we forget the nobler pursuit of truth.  Rather than act as scientists-make observations, propose hypotheses which we then test, and revise our conjectures as necessary- we become obsessed with defending our stance, only recognizing evidence that confirms what we already believe to be true.  

Featured in NPR’s This I Believe series, a treasure trove of earnest, heartfelt essays in which the exceptional and ordinary share their life philosophies, Gup’s witty “In Praise of the Wobblies” adopts a fresh take on the value of having an opinion or, more accurately, the value of not having one.  Though we tend to admire those with strong convictions, Gup observes impassioned opinion has the habit of mutating into zealotry, certainty into narrow-mindedness, and conclusive answers into a troubling lack of curiosity.  35 years ago when he was just a college kid interviewing for an internship at the Washington Post, Gup confesses he felt insecure about his inability to pledge allegiance to either side of the political debate:

For years I really didn’t know what I believed.  I always seemed to stand in the no-man’s-land between opposing arguments, yearning to be won over by one side or the other, but finding instead degrees of merit in both.  

I remember some thirty-five years ago, sitting at a table with the editor of The Washington Post and a half dozen Harvard kids.  We were all finalists for a Post internship, and the editor was there to winnow our numbers down.  He asked each of us what we thought about the hot issues of the day- Vietnam, Nixon, the demonstrations.  The Harvard kids were dazzling.  They knew exactly where they stood.  Me, I just stumbled on every issue, sounding so muddled.  I was sure I had forever lost my shot at the Post.  Why, I wondered, could I not see as closely as those around me?”  

When a month later he received a rejection letter from the editor explaining he was too young for the internship but that he “hunched” one hell of a future ahead of him, Gup recognized that- unlike those who knew exactly what they thought and were often blinded by their own preconceptions and biases- he, for the very reason that he did not possess a staunch opinion, was more open-minded and able to apprehend reality:

“But that first letter…had already given me an invaluable license.  It had let me know that it was okay to be perplexed, to be torn by the issues, to look at the world and not feel inadequate because it would not sort itself out cleanly.  In the company of the confident, I had always envied their certainty.  I imagined myself a tiny sailboat, aimlessly tacking in whatever wind prevailed at the moment.  

But in time, I came to accept, even embrace, what I called my “confusion,” and to recognize it as a friend and ally, no apologies needed, I preferred to listen rather than to speak; to inquire, not crusade.  As a non-combatant, I was welcomed at the tables of bitterly divided foes

An editor and mentor at the Post once told me I was “wobbly.”  I asked who else was in that category and drew comfort from its quirky ranks.  They were good people all- open-minded, inquisitive, and, yes, confused.  We shared a common creed.  Our articles of faith all ended in a question mark.  I wouldn’t want a whole newsroom, hospital, platoon, or-God forbid-a nation of us.  But in periods of crisis, when passions are high and certainty runs rabid, it’s good to have a few of us on hand.  In such times, I believe it falls to us Wobblies to try and hold the shrinking common ground.”

Bad Barrels & Bystanders: Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”

Few movies have portrayed journalism with such grounded realism and deep reverence as 2015 Academy Award winner Spotlight.  Though director Tom McCarthy paints a rather unglamorous portrait of the profession (the majority of reporting occurs either in the Boston Globe’s dreary manila beige offices or dimly lit basements haunted by the stench of dead rats), it’s clear he possesses a worshipful esteem for the occupation.  Like so many films consumed with the minutiae of daily journalism, Spotlight is a “tour de force of filing cabinet cinema,” endlessly fascinated with the details of what today has become a dying craft: the poring over records, the digging up leads, the sifting through clips.  But this film is not simply for journalists who wistfully remember the days when newspapers were delivered to your doorstep (or longingly recall the whir of the printing press)- it’s for anyone who believes in the tremendous power of a few individuals to have a far-reaching impact.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” Margaret Mead once said.  This subtly gripping tale proves true this sentiment.

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A first-rate newsroom drama based on real life events, Spotlight documents the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests.  The year is 2001: the traditional newspaper has only just begun to compete with the internet but local publications like the Boston Globe are struggling to maintain their readership.  To boost sales and make their paper more relevant, the Globe brings in new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an unmarried man of the Jewish faith.  “What are you reading?” Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), editor of Spotlight, the paper’s investigative division, asks when they meet for a business meeting over dinner and drinks.  “The Curse of the Bambino but, to be honest,” Baron confesses, “I’m not much of a baseball fan.”  In a predominantly Catholic city that devours peanuts at Red Sox games, Baron is an outsider to say the least.  But it is his status as newcomer that makes him willing to take on Boston’s mightiest, most formidable adversary: the Archdiocese.  After reading that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, potentially knew priest John Geoghan was molesting local children, Baron urges Spotlight to investigate.  

An ensemble of fine actors compose the Spotlight team: tough guy Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) typifies the determined persistence of the classic reporter as he tirelessly tracks down leads, sneaking into offices uninvited and enduring door after door slammed in his face.  Fellow staff writer Sacha Pfeiffer (a warm performance by Rachel McAdams) interviews victims while diligent reporter Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) discovers whenever a priest was accused of abusing a child, the Archdiocese would officially say he was on “sick leave” and send him to a treatment center only to reassign him to another parish where he would surely resume his predatory ways.

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As the group of journalists delve deeper, they begin to realize the sheer scope of what they’ve stumbled upon: the systematic abuse of children isn’t just limited to Boston-it goes to the heart of the Vatican itself.  What makes such rampant horror possible?  Creator of the infamous Stanford prison experiment Phillip Zambardo would argue these atrocities weren’t perpetrated by a few “bad apples” but the result of a bad barrel.  Lack of oversight, a complete absence of accountability: the Catholic Church created a precarious situation in which priests faced no repercussions for their actions and could therefore be seduced into abusing their power in the most despicable ways.  “When you’re from a poor family, religion counts for a lot,” survivor and impassioned victims advocate Phil Saviano explains, “When a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal.  When he asks you to collect the hymnals, you feel special.  It’s like God asking for your help.”  

What’s chillingly disturbing about the Catholic Church scandal is not only the ways in which so-called “men of God” use the collar to prey on the helpless and vulnerable but the countless legal, political, and social institutions complicit in the cover up.  After all, if the abominable abuse of children was happening on such a grand scale, how did nobody know?  The Boston Globe comes to estimate there are nearly 90 offending priests in Boston alone.  By discreetly settling these abuse cases out of court, lawyers like handsome, smooth-talking Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) keep the Church’s disgraceful secrets hidden from public view (not to mention make a small fortune for themselves).  On a larger scale, police departments perpetuate the abuse by releasing offenders like Geoghan back into the hands of the Archdiocese rather than follow standard protocol and press criminal charges.  Even the Globe itself, we learn, is partly responsible.  The paper had been tipped to the existence of a scandal as far back as 1993 but turned down the opportunity to cover the story.  Why?  For the same reason families of victims didn’t speak out- they were afraid of taking on an organization as influential as the Archdiocese. 

The press, lawyers, police: all wittingly and unwittingly contribute to the conspiracy of silence that enables such monstrosities to continue.  Though Spotlight never indulges in the speechifying or grand-standing typical of a Hollywood drama of this material, it unwaveringly maintains a stance that is moral: not only are the perpetrators themselves culpable- loathsome men like Geoghan and their superiors like Cardinal Law- but, through our inaction, we bystanders are equally at fault.  As lawyer Garbedian sharply notes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”