For a while, several years ago, I stopped watching the TV news. This was no small thing. I was in the habit of watching all three networks, often at the same time, spinning the dial with the finesse of an accomplished musician running scales on his favorite instrument. And the messenger was no less than Hughes Rudd on the “CBS Morning News.” Despite his role in this, Hughes Rudd remains my favorite TV news personality.
It happened a few minutes after 7 a.m. I was fixing breakfast and getting the kids ready for school. The lead story that morning was a Patty Hearst item. She was still loose, highly wanted by her family and the FBI, and the source of continuing media speculation on the nature of every issue she represented: wealthy children, kidnapping, rebellion, brainwashing, bank robbery, fame, radical groups, the Underground, detective work, etc. This story concerned some combination of those issues, and its details escape recollection. It wasn’t important then and it’s less important now.
The second story was of the “House and Senate Conferees met today . . . ” variety, an example of what William Safire calls a MEGO, short for My Eyes Glaze Over. In the journalism business, a MEGO is too important to leave out and too dull to interest anybody.
I forget the third story completely.
The fourth story went something like this — Reports from growing Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand paint a grim picture of life in that part of the world since Khmer Rouge forces defeated the American-supported Lon Nol government in 1975. Some say that perhaps half a million people have died as a result of political or military actions. Others put that figure at a million or more. Since the Communist takeover, virtually the entire population has been forced to work in the countryside, and there are reports of widespread torture and starvation. CBS news has received the first film of life there. The film quality is poor [film goes on screen] but this clip, shot by a Japanese news team, shows what is described as forced labor in a peasant village. . . .
Background about the American bombing, the Lon Nol government, and the Mayaguez incident followed. And that was it. Back after this message.
I was stunned.
Half a million people. A million or more. Dead. Just like that. In a country with only a few million people in the first place.
I wanted to learn more, so I switched to ’’Good Morning America” on ABC. Nothing. Then to “Today” on NBC. Still nothing. So I turned off the tube and found a morning paper. It had almost nothing — a three-inch story on page five.
I thought: here is a horror on the scale of the Holocaust and nobody gives a shit.
Pol Pot, the guy in charge of this massacre, was a guerilla Hitler, doing genocide on a grander scale — rationalizing it all, no doubt, with the same ideological rectitude. I only learned Pot’s name a couple of months ago, after Cambodia finally made the front page. By this time, more than three million people were dead, victims of torture, starvation, execution and heartbreak. Of course, Cambodia’s lead story status was not owed to the dimensions of its awfulness, but rather to the recent flood of starving refugees in Thailand and high-quality via-satellite photography to accompany ponderous reportage by network correspondents.
I still don’t know what Pol Pot looks like, although he’s one of history’s Top Ten Bad Guys. Cambodia is off the tube again, and gone from the papers, replaced first by Hostage/Ayatollah stories from Iran and then by Rebel/Russian stories from Afghanistan.
I do know what Idi Amin looks like, however. Amin is a modern African Hitler who was, during his years as dictator of Uganda, “larger than life,” as they say. He was huge. He had a broad smile. He was unpredictable. He boxed with his troops. He said funny things on the radio. He sent “hang in there.” letters to Richard Nixon. He had his wife cut into chunks and displayed to his children to show “what happens to bad mommies.” No doubt: Amin was good press.
In the course of his reign, Amin killed about 250,000 people. But the biggest story to emerge from that period was a brief and dramatic event known as the “Raid on Entebbe.” The event began when some Palestinian terrorists hijacked an El Al jet and brought it to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where Amin detained the passengers for his amusement, while the world wondered what was going on. After it looked like things were going nowhere, an Israeli commando party zoomed in out of the night, blew up the Ugandan Air Force, killed most of the Palestinians, herded the hostages into a plane and flew away. Just like that. It was an A-1 story, with good guys, bad guys, victims and heroes. We ate it up. We made movies about it. The movies ran on TV and made money.
Yet for all its heroism, the Raid on Entebbe shrinks against the background of Ugandan suffering and survival. There must be thousands of heart-touching stories to be told of Ugandan families who faced and overcame the terrors of life under Amin. I’ll bet my typewriter that they’ll never make the big screen. Or the little screen.
It’s clear. Amin’s personality, more than his atrocities, put him in the news and kept him there. Insane behavior is more interesting than insane policies.
If Pol Pot made amusing calls to the AP office, or wrestled baboons, or beheaded his friends, or otherwise made a public personality out of himself, or if we just had some good color footage coming out of Cambodia these last four years, all that death and terror would be old and familiar news by now.
Instead, we are treated to a dumb litany of high-level wondering: “Why didn’t we know about this before?” “Why didn’t we help sooner?”
It is easy to blame the news. That’s what I did. I turned off the messenger and complained for a while about its “lack of substance.” It wasn’t that I favored unpleasant news, I explained. I just didn’t want my mind to eat at a restaurant that served the dessert before the meal, if it bothered to serve the meal at all.
Later, when my appetite prevailed, I faced an unpleasant fact of life: the people, and not the news messengers, are to blame. The news tells people what people are interested in. And for some reason, people are a lot more interested in Patty Hearst than a few million dead Cambodians. I wondered why.
Now I know. The answer was delivered to me in a revealing book called Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith, a literary agent who uses his ample experience to teach writers some simple but overlooked facts about what people like to read.
According to Meredith. people like stories.
All stories, he says, have one basic “plot skeleton.” Boil any novel in lye, and you’ll find the same bones, every time.
First, identification. You start with a protagonist, something or somebody with whom to identify. It doesn’t matter what — a good guy, a bad guy, a town, a well-meaning cloud — just so the reader identifies with an entity.
Then, struggle. Whatever the protagonist does, and no matter what anybody else does, things get worse. And usually more complicated. This is the biggest part of every story, where the reader’s interest is maintained.
And finally, resolution. The struggle comes to an end, an event or series of events which leaves the reader drained and satisfied. The hero may be dead, the earth gone, or the universe changed. But at least the story is over and some kind of conclusion is reached.
Meredith says that you’ll find these three elements in every kind of story too: plays, fairy tales, situation comedies, romance novels, mysteries. People want these elements, even if the resolution exists only by implication, as with soap operas.
Or most news.
Let’s face it. Until we had film and reportage, Cambodia wasn’t much of a news story. The protagonist was remote, almost faceless and therefore hard to identify with; there was little struggle, since the Khmer Rouge enjoyed total control of the population, discouraging the escape of both people and news; and there was little hope for a resolution, with half the population already dead.
News is sports. We’ll root for the underdog, if he stands a chance. Cambodia didn’t stand a chance. It still doesn’t.
By contrast, Afghanistan is more of a story than Cambodia, but only on the grand scale, as a pawn in the East-West chess game. On the local level, forget it. All the news shows us is wooly tribesmen who steal people’s teeth while they sleep and kill you for looking the wrong way at a sheep. The struggle, what little there is, seems more between different tribes than between Afghans and Russians. And only the deluded few who think this is Russia’s Vietnam hold any hope for a cheerful resolution. Since when have the Russians blown a takeover? They don’t fool around: Tanks, bombs, nerve gas, napalm, and no electorate or press people to obstruct the process.
Now the Hostage story is a very good one. We have identification: there are Americans, fergodsake, and the bad guys hate us. We have struggle of the most classic kind: no matter what we do, or anybody does, things get worse. And we have resolution: who doesn’t believe they’ll get out alive? We can see the movies already. And the TV specials. And the books.
An interesting thing: as soon as the TV crews were thrown out of Iran, the hostages became a minor news item. ABC, which had a nightly special devoted to the matter, began looking for other staff to fill the slot: Iowa election results, Afghan this, U.N. that.
The message is clear. Without an observer there to tell the story, we lose interest. The struggle is broken. In the unending soap opera of World News Tonight, a story line is dropped for a while, left hanging until fresh footage and on-the-spot reporting brings it back into the foreground. So the hostages are on ice for a while. By the time you read this, they may be out. Who knows? It’s still a hell of a story.
When we have a horror tale like Cambodia, our interest can focus only at the closest, most human level. Here we can identify with the protagonist, see the struggle and hope for resolution — regardless of the surrounding environment. Today (Jan. 20, 1980), the New York Times Magazine has an outstanding cover story entitled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” by Sydney Schanberg, a reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his account of Cambodia’s fall to the Khmer Rouge. Dith Pran was Schanberg’s close friend, interpreter, right hand and lifesaver in the last days of Pnomh Penh. Schanberg escaped from Cambodia after The Fall; Pran didn’t. While Schanberg lived with hope and guilt, Pran waged a heroic four-year struggle to escape. In October, 1979, Pran made it to Thailand and the pair was reunited. A powerful, straight-to-the-heart story.
This morning’s “cover story” on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” program (easily the finest show on television) was also about Schanberg and Pran. Seeing it brought tears to my eyes. Thinking about it still chokes me up, hours later. That’s a far more profound effect than the one I had three years ago when CBS told me that a million Cambodians were dead. Then I was stunned. This time I was moved. Then, an account; now, a story.
Same goes for the Holocaust. I’ll wager that a lot more people cried watching the TV movie, “Holocaust,” or reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” than by seeing plain footage of Auschwitz and hearing the numbers of victims which ran in millions.
All religions are based on stories. Half the world believes in the story of The Beginning told by Moses. And who can beat Moses’ story of the Hebrews’ Exodus? Interestingly, Israel was a great story then, and still is today. And the best storytellers, arguably, come straight from the Jewish storytelling tradition. Isaac Bashevis Singer just won a Nobel Prize for Literature. When it comes to living and telling good stories, the Jewish people own the franchise.
I sometimes think that’s one reason why America is so fond of Israel. America is itself a fine story, and, like Israel, a living lesson in how stories structure our view of history. The struggle and victory of the Settlers is a better story than the struggle and loss of the Indians — just as the struggle and victory of the Zionists (read Exodus, by Leon Uris, or see the movie, with Paul Newman) is a better story than the struggle and loss of the Palestinians.
As with sports, it’s just plain hard to identify with losers, no matter how just their cause, unless they stand a chance. Certainly, both Indians and Palestinians have good causes (probably better causes than their antagonists); as both win little victories (a hunk of Maine here, a wedge of Sinai there), we can say a yay for the underdog.
Looking at history being made right now, we see how the tail of events — i.e., stories — wags the dog of foreign policy. Fifty people getting three meals a day in a country where the national sport is burning Jimmy Carter effigies has a far more powerful influence on America and its leaders than a few million dying Cambodians. We’re pushed to a warlike posture. We want to fight the Arabs. We want to stand up to the Russians.
Stories: they make the struggles of life more interesting, they give us hope. And they give us enemies.