If you, like me and most of the rest of us, follow international news a little — emphasize a little — you might have heard some of the strident rhetoric coming from our supposed friend and ally, Israel, and wondered, “what’s the story here?”
A lot of the tough talk comes from Israel’s new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who in the past year suggested in reference to Arab Israelis that “those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done — we need to pick up an ax and cut off his head.”
So what’s the story with this, you may wonder: A high-ranking Israeli official who sounds more like a guy from ISIS than from the country to which we have committed so much support.
Part of the story is Lieberman’s own life. Lieberman was born in the Soviet Union in what is now Kishinev, Moldova. His father, according to Wikipedia, “served in the Red Army and spent seven years in exile in Siberia under Joseph Stalin. . . Lieberman attributes his forthright personality to his youth in the large Jewish community of 1970s Kishinev, saying: ‘We were more affluent, better educated, and we showed it… The Jews of Moldova have this no-nonsense streak.’”
After Lieberman and his family relocated to Israel in 1978, he was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces and then enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he participated in several violent clashes with Arab students. He also participated in a student social club, serving as a “bouncer.”
Lieberman’s story is part of a larger story. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a million people who identified themselves as Jewish migrated to Israel. As the Guardian reported in 2011, “they have influenced the culture, hi-tech industry, language, education and, perhaps most significantly, Israeli politics.”
Israel’s Russian-speaking citizens, reported NPR in 2013, “now make up about 15 percent of Israel’s 8 million people [and] wield considerable political clout and have played a significant role in the general rightward shift of the Israeli electorate . . . not least because of their resistance to the idea of giving up territory.”
NPR quoted Lily Galili, an Israeli journalist: “They look at the size of this country, and they say, ‘What? You want to hand back territory? You must be crazy!’”
I share this lengthy story not to contribute to our understanding of international affairs, but rather to demonstrate the value of stories — stories we tell others, as well those told to us.
Telling stories isn’t easy. Last week in this space (and a little more space stolen from other sections of the paper) I created a dialogue with Frank Deford — me trading anecdotes with carefully selected excerpts from Deford’s 2012 memoir, “Over Time.” It should have been the easiest 8,000-word piece I ever wrote. In fact, it took considerable effort to convert my memories, so strongly etched in my brain, into words that would make sense on paper to a reader now far removed in place and time.
The day after that issue of U.S. 1 was printed, I spoke to the Montgomery Rotary Club. My topic was “the decline of storytelling with the advent of never ending news cycles,” a wonderful title provided by my media-savvy hosts.
Wonderful as the title was, I found it difficult to talk about story telling — possibly because we in the media don’t do as much story telling anymore and, as Deford and I both pointed out in our “dialogue,” nowadays we in the news business hardly ever gather together after work to trade war stories about our stories.
At one point I tried to tell a story that I thought illustrated the kind of extreme stories journalists occasionally come across that are too intimate — even in this age of sex, lies, and innuendo. It was an accidental encounter with a celebrated major league pitcher and an orthopedic surgeon that told how much our most famous heroes are still just 20-something kids at their core. It involved some embarrassing personal details that I would never put in print. But I would at least tell it over coffee among Rotarians. I mumbled, I fumbled, and somehow I got the story out, inelegantly at best.
I am not alone in finding that the story, the real story, can sometimes be a difficult thing to wrestle to the ground.
At a Princeton University alumni reunions panel last week Gloria Riviera (Princeton 1996), a correspondent for ABC Television news, recalled the scene when she started in the business in the late 1990s. Correspondents and producers would gather at daily planning sessions and kick around ideas that might end up on the evening news. Today those meetings might consist of journalists spending more time staring at their cellphones, seeing what’s already trending on social media, and then using that as a starting point for what would appear on the evening news.
In a story posted earlier this spring on www.niemanreports.org, Juliet Eilperin (Princeton ’92) describes how the fortunes of a candidate like Donald Trump have gone up as the story telling skill of the media has gone down.
“Though the volume of [Trump] coverage has grown significantly, no small portion of it has been either hastily assembled, trivial, or, like so much coverage of previous campaigns, focused exclusively on the horse race. The nanosecond news cycle incentivizes reporters to publish as soon as possible and often to elevate snark over substance. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric guarantees traffic, so his statements garner more attention than crucial policy issues.”
Twitter is the embodiment of the nanosecond news cycle and it is hardly new. What is new, according to Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times quoted by Eilperin, “is the brutality of minute-by-minute competition and coverage. There’s this wild chase for scooplets. News breaks that no one remembers two days afterwards.” Adds Eilperin: “That frenetic search for news, Abramson argues, has come at a cost.”
Matt Taibbi, the insightful political reporter for Rolling Stone, essentially includes himself in the list of culprits who have failed to get the Trump story right: The title of his May 19 Rolling Stone story: “Trump Isn’t the Campaign Media’s First Mistake — We’ve been getting this story wrong for ages, and Trump is the consequence.”
Writes Taibbi: “Even as America lost its manufacturing base and tens of millions of people were put out of good jobs, the campaign story for years remained the same weirdly celebratory . . . fairy tale of political athletes engaged in high-stakes rhetorical combat while chasing the ultimate power prize, the White House. . .
“The problem with this shorthand is that while it may accurately describe something, it’s not the politics of the United States. There are not six basic groups of Americans, all of them healthy, polite, dressed in thousand-dollar outfits, and speaking against picturesque backdrops in perfect, poll-tested sound bites.
“America instead is a place where a huge plurality of the population is underemployed, pissed off, in debt and barely keeping their heads above water. A good 15 percent or so are not even doing that well, sitting below the poverty line, living in homes without adequate heat, sanitation or food. That portion of America doesn’t appear anywhere in campaign coverage, not even as background.”
Now, however, that portion of America has moved front and center (or front and whatever side of the political spectrum Trump finds most expedient at the moment). That’s a story worth telling, not just tweeting.