When Closure is Contrived

September 28, 2011

The way of nature is chaos, but the dream of man is order. Henry Adams.

contrived closureIn a piece about the new Sarah Palin book for the Los Angeles Times, book critic David L. Ulin, wrote of the difficulty of publishing a book relating to current events.

"...the problem with instant history (is) that events have a way of outstripping us...it's hard to tell a story before it ends."

This is a brilliant observation, and the quote also perfectly describes the flaw in the use of the word "story" in conveying news information today. News in real time simply does not lend itself to storytelling, because, as Ulin notes, it hasn't ended. He refers to the Palin book as only able to provide "the contrivance of closure," or a "constrained timeline," which is also the problem with the nightly news. It served us well for a long time, but the public demands more. It's the contrived nature of the story closure that baffles storytellers, who just don't understand how their work can come off as, well, phoney.

Ulin's argument is that history requires afterthought in order to correctly shape the underlying narrative that defines the story and that there are problems doing that in an age of what he calls "instant history." Meanwhile, self-serving interpreters find narratives that seem reasonable at the time, despite the fact that these themes are framed with logic that flows from, to be kind, a moving target. While the news industry steadfastly clings to its "just the facts" paradigm, the truth is that facts don't need a story. The story is the need of the writer, who uses the seemingly thoughtful position of impartial observer to create and perpetuate a narrative that may or may not accurately reflect the facts.

Logic is accurate unless it begins from the wrong position on the map.

The logic of the story is exactly what has shaped the practice of journalism for centuries, but the reality is that news has never stood still. Ulin's "contrivance of closure" was driven by the demands of the production schedule, but the closure was still every bit contrived. And contrivance in any form drags along with it other forms of manipulation that, frankly, have destroyed the trust Americans used to have for the press.

Authenticity is the opposite of contrivance. It's one of the new values of journalism, as defined by Northwestern's Medill Media Management executive director Michael Smith. We quoted Smith in our book, Live. Local. BROKEN News.

Authenticity is trying to connect the user, as well as you can, with the original source of information and getting the filters out of the way.

Most professional story-telling journalists don't think of themselves as one of Smith's pejorative "filters" — a block to authenticity — but that's exactly what they are.

Authenticity is the most misunderstood concept in all of new media. Many suggest it's about writing as your "authentic self," which couldn't be further from the truth. Others similarly confuse authenticity with transparency, but even that is far outside the target. Authenticity promotes trust, because of the changing dynamics today between people and the so-called "experts" of a different era. The thirst, therefore, is for the source material itself, so that we can make our own decisions.

Ted Koppel, that journalist's journalist, received a Lifetime Achievement Murrow Award recently and used the occasion to "tsk-tsk" the industry with a wagging finger.

"I report what's happened to broadcast news as dangerous to an informed electorate. For example, most of the overseas bureaus that existed when I was a young foreign correspondent have been shut down. Or they are being run by some local who has provided a little bit of information to the network. That's not healthy, that's not good. If anything, we need to know more about what's going on in the world today than we did 40 years ago, not less."

The sheer arrogance of this kind of Jurassic statement is beyond comprehension. First, television was absolutely rolling in cash when Mr. Koppel was a "young foreign correspondent." Self-righteousness is enabled by profit. Second, the writer-story-narrative paradigm was in full blossom at the time. We had no reason to disbelieve that narrative, because the ubiquity of the celebrity journalist hadn't materialized yet, and the birth of Jay Rosen's "Great Horizontal" was still many years away. Contrary to what a lot of these Big-J journalist types preach, many people, myself included, believe that we're entering an era when electorate knowledge is higher than ever and that the sky's the limit for the future. The only people threatened by that are the "experts" of the old world, because it's their fatted calf that's getting whacked. Third, distrust of the press BEGAN in 1973, according to Gallup, when Koppel was chief diplomatic correspondent for ABCNEWS and traveling the world with Henry Kissinger during the "shuttle diplomacy" years. Nostalgia, therefore, isn't progress.

The nature of all authority is being changed as knowledge is spreading horizontally. I was at my cardiologist's office the other day, which meant a "quick" EKG. The nurse ran the machine that printed out a page of my heartbeats, and I said, "It looks like normal sinus rhythm to me." Her response was, "We'll leave that to the man with the M.D. behind his name." To do anything other than that would be unthinkable, in her view, and while I certainly wouldn't put my skills against one trained to read such things, my cardiologist would ultimately be no match for a computer. These kinds of things will produce cultural clashes for years to come.

In the opening quote above, Henry Adams declares a truth about human beings and our need to organize and control our environment. We've come a long way towards that goal over the eons, but what have we really learned? We build homes on or near earthquake faults, on flood plains, on hurricane-ravaged beaches, at the base of active volcanoes and in deserts, where the only source of water is hundreds of miles away. Our order, it seems, is often just an illusion. Change is the natural way of things, and no where is this truer than with the thing we call "news."

News happens. We respond. History is written, but even that changes sometimes as new evidence comes to light. Think about poor Pluto, demoted from planet status a few years ago. Who knew? And that's the point. As much as we want reliable sources of truth, they are often slippery little suckers that jump around like the vampires and werewolves of HBO's True Blood. The best we often can do is Ulin's "contrived closure."

We're far better off as individuals and as a culture through the dissemination of knowledge than we are being told what to do and how to think by self-serving others, whether they dictate via the sword or the dollar. The chaos of Mr. Adams is only anarchy to the one who profits from order, but what he was trying to teach is that humankind really controls nothing at all. We're reaping the whirlwind of our contrary illusions as the new age dawns.

Contrived closure is a big part of the loss of trust in the press today. Along with other practices, such as Jay's "he said/she said" journalism, it's all being swept aside by a more gritty and in-your-face version of the news that's unfolding in real time. There will always be a need for good storytellers, but the demand for news "stories" is fading, because they're so dissatisfying. The first draft of history is being written 140 characters at a time. That's "news." The rest is anything but, and we've got to find a way to get past it.

Perhaps the place to begin is by calling it something else.