In 1981, The Washington Post published an article by columnist Janet Cooke about an 8-year-old-heroin addict. The story garnered Cooke a Pulitzer Prize, and a strong response from the public. So strong that efforts were made to locate the boy she had written about — who turned out to be nonexistent. Cooke resigned, returned the prize, and disappeared from view. But while her fabrication of a story was not in accordance with the ethics of journalism, it’s not at all uncommon for politicians and pundits to concoct, distort, or deceptively proffer stories for the purpose of manipulating the public. An anecdote, in short, is a powerful tool for propaganda.
Mind you, there’s nothing inherently bad about using anecdotes to convey concepts; on the contrary, it can be a powerful, effective and constructive tool. Throughout history, some of the most masterful teachers have illustrated their ideas with hypothetical situations — including Aesop, and, according to tradition, Jesus of Nazareth. But what we are concerned with here is using storytelling for deceptive and manipulative purposes. Such anecdotes essentially fall into four categories: those that are totally fabricated; those that are based on actual events, but are greatly distorted/ embellished; those that are more or less true as depicted, but are used in a dishonest manner; and those that are intended to indicate what could or would happen under certain circumstances.
Among the first type are certain stories that circulate online about Jane Fonda. One in particular involves her visiting a group of POWs in Vietnam who secretly handed her messages to take back to the U.S., to let others know of their whereabouts — whereupon she supposedly betrayed them by turning the messages over to their captives, who tortured and beat the prisoners, killing three of them. To make this story more convincing, several realistic details have been added,including the names of actual POWs who supposedly were present. But those named all have denied the incident occurred.
That anecdote almost qualifies as the second type, since Fonda at least really did visit 7 POWs in Vietnam. (They all agreed to meet with her, and were not pressured or punished by their captors.) But perhaps a better example is the one about her more recent visit to a restaurant. Supposedly she and Ted Turner went to a steak house in Montana, and were informed upon arrival that there was a 45-minute wait. Whereupon she indignantly said “Do you know who I am?” and demanded to see the manager, and then the owner — who informed her that he was a Vietnam veteran, and that she was not welcome there at any time. Again, whoever created this episode tried to make it sound realistic by adding details like dialogue and even the name of the restaurant. Which unfortunately for them, made it easy to contact the owner of the restaurant, who denied it ever happened. Fonda and Turner did come to the restaurant, and they were indeed told there was a long wait, but they simply left; she did not act like a Karen, nor did she play the celebrity card — indeed, that would have been quite out of character for someone who has been known to ride public transit rather than taking a taxi or limo.
The third type of anecdote is exemplified by accounts of “illegal immigrants” committing atrocious crimes or gun owners thwarting bad guys. While these episodes are (sometimes) true as reported, the amount of attention they are awarded is often far out of proportion to their significance. The intended (and often achieved) result is to give the impression that these things occur far more often than they really do.
For the fourth type of anecdote, it would be hard to beat, for conciseness and immediate impact, something that happened during a presidential debate in 1988. Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was known to be opposed to the death penalty; and at one point, the moderator asked him, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis (his wife) were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” It was a bald effort to catch him off guard, and it worked. His stumbling response was arguably a major turning point, for the worse, in his campaign.
Gov. Dukakis already had been the target of a conniving anecdote of the third type from his political opponent, George H.W. Bush, who ran a TV ad about William Horton, a convicted murderer in Massachusetts who was given a weekend furlough while Dukakis was governor. Instead of reporting back to prison, Horton committed rape, robbery and assault. (He was recaptured.) Bush hammered away at this incident incessantly (rechristening Horton, who was African-American, as “Willie” Horton as a subtle way of stoking the fears of racist white Americans) to make the case that Gov. Dukakis was “soft on crime”.
Once Bush was in office, he used anecdotes of the first type, to devastating effect, on at least one occasion. Drumming up support for Operation Desert Storm, he repeated at least 6 times the story that Iraqi soldiers had stormed into a hospital in Kuwait, removed babies from incubators, and left them on the floor to die. It was completely false.
Ronald Reagan is remembered as the quintessential White House storyteller. Many of his anecdotes were benign enough — some were even humorous (which helped him get away with a great deal). But some of his anecdotes were less honest and more malicious. He once told, for instance, about seeing a woman buy an orange with a food stamp, and then using the change to purchase a bottle of vodka. (When was the last time he’d priced a bottle of vodka, anyway?) This helped feed into the anecdote of the “welfare queen” or the “welfare Cadillac”, which conservatives loved to invoke in an attempt to justify slashing benefits for the needy. Some of his other stories were just efforts to build up his image — he claimed to have filmed the liberation of POWs during World War II (he never made it out of the States during the war) and to have improvised broadcasting baseball plays on air from a remote location when his wire feed of the game went dead (a true incident, but he stole it from someone else).
Many other presidents also have posed as yarn spinners, with varying degrees of success. LBJ, like both Bushes, lied the U.S. into war — he drummed up support for U.S. involvement in Vietnam by spreading a report of a mythical attack on American forces in the Gulf Of Tonkin. At the other end of the scale, the 45th White House Occupant realized the power of anecdotes, and tried his hand at them frequently. Unfortunately for him, he was as inept at that as he was at everything else, and so his stories came out painfully comic — things on the order of “Well, there was this football player who’d probably never cried in his life, but he was in tears as he fell to his knees and thanked me for all I’ve done for this country.”
Nor is this trait among presidents and other politicians a modern development. Even George Washington, who supposedly was incapable of prevarication, was guilty of it — for one thing, he falsely claimed credit for masterminding the Battle Of Yorktown.
There are two reasons why anecdotes are so effective as propaganda. First of all, they make things more “real”. Most people think better in specific and concrete terms than in general and abstract terms. This is why beginning math problems are sometimes expressed as “word” problems — e.g., “Johnny had 4 apples and Susie took a bite out of two; how did like those apples?”
The other, and perhaps more vital, reason is that stories cue the violins and drumbeats — they are an effective tool to emotionalize content. People are much more likely to take an interest in, and remember, and believe a point someone is trying to make if they are told that such and such actually happened, or actually might have happened, to individuals such as they might identify with. That illegal immigrant raped and strangled a teenage girl just like your daughter.
Many years ago during my stint as a movie critic, I attended a press luncheon with the creative team behind the upcoming film Fletch. Among them was novelist Gregory McDonald, author of the Fletch books. He was clutching a cocktail before food was served, and he already seemed several sheets to the wind. At one point during conversation, he somehow got on the topic of his deceased son, and appeared on the verge of tears. It was an awkward moment as several journalists around him offered him scant words of consolation.
The next day, I read a column by a journalist who was not present, but who had heard about the incident. He reported that McDonald had staged the same act before, even pretending to be intoxicated. But in fact, Gregory McDonald never even had a son.
Why would he do such a thing? Maybe it was a power trip. Maybe he was just bored. Maybe he wanted to prove to himself that he could be as effective a storyteller in person as he was in print. Whatever his motives, those who were on the receiving end felt understandably betrayed once they found out about the ruse.
Yes, we enjoy being told stories that provoke emotional response and entice us to suspend disbelief. That’s what novels and movies are all about. But in those circumstances, we know we are being bamboozled, and submit to it willingly. In the case of propaganda anecdotes, however, we are not supposed to see the wool being pulled over our eyes; we are not supposed to make the distinction between fantasy and reality; and we are supposed to be persuaded to believe something more wide-ranging than the death of an author’s son. When a stranger tells you a story, either to your face or via mass media, that tugs at the heart-strings, you would do well to stop and ask why they are telling it.