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Craven: Importance Of Narrative

11/29/10 7:55AM By Jay Craven
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Portrait by Todd R. Lockwood
(HOST)  Inspired by last Friday's National Day of Listening, commentator Jay Craven has been thinking about the importance of narrative in our national identity.

(CRAVEN) We live by our stories - individually and collectively.  This may be truer in America than anywhere else in the world.  No other country comes close to our output of movies and syndicated media.  

Television news supplies much of the collective narrative we share as Americans.  We all saw the footage from the BP oil spill and the earthquake in Haiti - and we can probably still remember the helicopter shots of OJ Simpson fleeing Los Angeles in his white Ford Bronco.  Public figures rise and fall according to the narratives they shape or are shaped for them.  Think Nelson Mandela, Eliot Spitzer, Sarah Palin.

Television also leads our nation's fevered march to Election Day.  Passions run strong during this season, powered by competing narratives that battle for ascendancy.  This year, the insurgent Tea Party movement grabbed media attention, propelled by a conservative populist narrative that took hold and so dominated media coverage it became momentous. 1960's activist Abby Hoffman may have said that the revolution would not be televised - but this year he was proven wrong.

I'm surprised that the current White House isn't more adept in shaping its own governing narrative, given its effective campaign slogans of hope and change.  Once in power, the administration seemed not to understand what Franklin Roosevelt did - that success would depend on its ability to craft a compelling public narrative that could capture peoples' imaginations and connect them to an ambitious agenda.  

Forbes magazine columnist Nick Morgan makes the case for why narrative matters. "Because our brains retain stories better than any other form of information," he wrote, "we develop shortcuts to handle all the information we need in a modern world. The most important shortcut is the narrative. It's the way we store and organize the information."

It's fascinating.  The previous administration may have run up huge deficits and been the ones to actually propose and pass the big bank bailouts but it didn't matter.  Nor did Obama's middle-class tax cuts and incentives or the fact that the banks and car-makers have mostly paid back their government loans - with interest.  Those stories and others were not effectively told.

Contemporary campaigning now depends on negative attack ads that frequently demonize candidates and spin a narrative that's distorted or just not true.  And these misleading ads fuel many politicians' efforts to intensify their story into something resembling a gladiator spectacle.  

Can we accept these well-funded but deceptive campaigns as an acceptable means to gaining positions of public trust - for the common good?

And what message do we communicate to our kids? That they can manipulate the truth to a desired end?

Our stories help us understand who we are.  I'm afraid that the practice of purchasing time on public airwaves to spin largely fictitious and overheated campaign narratives as a means of gaining political power, divides us and poses a real threat to our collective American identity.

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