Storytelling.Posted: February 5, 2010
The New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, in her books The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) and The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), made a convincing argument that in journalism and in court trials, truth is never the issue; narrative is. When two sides need to sway a jury (or when a competition occurs outside the courtroom, and the prize is public opinion), seldom is it the case that one contestant has all the facts on his side and the other has none. Rather, each has the opportunity to present a narrative that makes sense of the facts at hand, a narrative that works from the assumption that certain of the facts are salient, while others (which may even be more numerous, but which don’t fit the narrative as conveniently) are trivial. The winner is never the side that proves a point supported incontestably by the most facts; the winner is the side that presents the story that makes the best sense of the facts.
I’m reminded of this, now that the dust has settled, by the “late night TV wars” that went on in January. Most people came out thinking that Conan O’Brien was done wrong by NBC and Jay Leno. Now, mind you, I’m one of those people who agree with Robin Williams when he guested on Conan’s next-to-last night that “NBC canceled the wrong show.” Conan has always made more interesting use of an hour of television than Jay Leno has, and I wish his show had prevailed. But does Jay Leno deserve to be seen as the villain in the scenario? He should own up to presenting a crappy television show, but does he need to own up to Machiavellian tactics in the pursuit of getting his old time slot back? Many people think he is guilty of these. But that is probably only because, of the two hosts, Leno has done the poorer job of managing public perception, of putting out a narrative that makes sense.
In this conflict, as in practically every other one that is put before a jury in a courtroom or the jury of public opinion, we have only a second-hand notion of the facts. We weren’t there when they “happened” (if, indeed, the things we presume to have happened, from reports we’ve received, happened at all). We have only two competing narratives. Conan O’Brien (and his people) did a superb job casting Conan as the victim in the scenario. But Leno, through his failure to put out a compelling competing narrative, or through his failure to hire people who could (he has even made a point of not having such people, if that can be believed), handed public opinion to O’Brien on a silver platter. A story Leno might have told was that NBC treated him unconscionably when it came to him in 2004 to tell him they were handing his job to O’Brien in five years, and that the way things played out instead is a triumph of an underdog against an evil corporation which has to admit it made a mistake. Well enough told, that’s the story we’d be telling ourselves now. But that’s not the way Leno managed the narrative in 2004 or since.
To call this a matter of spin is to denigrate it. We are hard-wired to need stories, especially stories that speak to our internal sense of (and need for) justice. Since the dawn of human consciousness we have told them to ourselves and to each other in order to make sense of a random and senseless universe. Our brains are also imbued with an internal sense of logic. What lawyers, journalists, PR people, advertising creative directors, and writers of all kinds know is that all competing narratives have potentially equal claim on the imagination, if they can just be made to sound logical enough. The narrative accepted as the truth will not always be the truth, but will always be the one that is the most compelling and convincing, the one that sounds logical, the one that “just seems to make the most sense” — and that is an outcome with which the talent of the storyteller, and his understanding of the human mind, has everything to do.