Life from inside the storytelling machine: an author offers caveats on influence tools

By Dr. Amy Zalman

The inside cover promise to "unveil the workings of a ‘storytelling machine’ more effective and insidious as a means of oppression than anything dreamed up by Orwell," was incentive enough for me to pick up and start reading the recent English translation of French writer Christian Salmon’s Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind.  Even more compelling for this reader: the ‘storytelling machine’ in question is one that I have been working in for the last  five years, as a proponent of the use of narrative as a tool of influence in U.S. strategic communication. 

Is the use of storytelling the sign of an insidious conspiracy, a form of "brainwashing," as Salmon calls it at one point in his book?  My answer is an easy "no"–like most conspiracy theories, Salmon’s presumes that people and institutions are far more organized and well coordinated than they generally are. Nevertheless, I found Salmon’s critique a useful one at a moment when many Americans are concerned that the lines between fiction and fact in our public discourse are blurring (although we are far from agreeing on whether to blame the government, corporations, Fox News or ‘the liberal media’).  

In Salmon’s terminology, stories are distinct from the great narratives–Homer, our religious texts, our greatest novelists–that have helped us understand our own humanity and guided us through generations.  In contrast, Salmon says, "storytelling goes in the opposite direction: it tacks artificial narratives onto reality, blocks exchanges and saturates symbolic space … it shapes behaviors and channels flows of emotion…. Storytelling establishes narrative systems that lead individuals to identify with models and conform to protocols."  This ability of stories to bypass our cognitive faculties and engage us at the level of emotion is, of course, precisely their appeal in national security and defense contexts, and all the more reason to listen to voices that issue caveats.

In the history that Salmon recounts, storytelling is a descendant of propaganda, which gained its present negative connotation in the 1920s. Propaganda begat public relations, which begat marketing and branding which, in an unholy coupling with the Internet, gave us storytelling as a technology of control.  By the late 1990s, we were in the full swing of a "storytelling revival."  Now we have storytelling management, storytelling marketing and, in effect, storytelling media and storytelling politics.

In Salmon’s view, though, the storytelling revival really got underway after 9/11.  The author narrates the failed efforts to use marketing methods to tell America’s story to a world that did not want to hear it, and the love-love relationship between the Pentagon and Hollywood. In his telling, this century-long attraction between the two poles of American power–military might and cultural clout– has continued into the 21st Century, with the military’s efforts to stage-manage the members of the armed forces through immersive training and foreign publics through technology-enabled storytelling.

The Bush administration is described as the apotheosis of Orwellian oppressiveness, exemplified by its consultation of marketers and moviemakers to help make a credible story of a superfluous war. Yet Salmon also sees a systemic problem that transcends party lines. He concludes his book with the observation that Obama is "the embodiment of a new generation of politicians who might be described as semio-politicians, who use signs and symbols rather than programs or promises, and who are less likely to "position" themselves on a traditional spectrum of political forces in order to inspire new ways of thinking about and changing the world."

What a dispiriting note on which to end. Salmon is clearly dissatisfied with this state of affairs, and it is not surprising: his book is limned by nostalgia for a time when empiricism and rationality ruled public discourse. Yet nostalgia is almost inevitably false: a yearning for what never was. Orson Welles did not need the Internet to persuade thousands of radio listeners that aliens had landed on earth in 1938, and there is no moment in human history when institutional power has not sought to control the story.  Under the strident charges of conspiracy then, a poignant note–a wish to turn back the clock to a more scientific time.  A cultural theorist like Salmon should know better, though: scientific rationality is as much as stylistic lens through which to see artifacts and events as any other mythic frame.

Salmon’s path to a false past isn’t feasible, but nor is his hopeless conclusion that we have no choice but to be the victims of others’ manipulation of our symbolic landscape, whether we think those others are our own government, or a tech-savvy foreign adversary.   For the tasks ahead, we will undoubtedly need more imagination, not less, to balance influence, ethics and transparency in our communication work.

Dr. Amy Zalman is a senior research strategist at a private sector consulting firm, and an independent consultant to senior policy makers on the function of culture and narrative in U.S. strategic communication.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

5 thoughts on “Life from inside the storytelling machine: an author offers caveats on influence tools

  1. Sorry, but the Welles buff in me has to issue a correction. Dr. Zalman misstates the Welles “War of the Worldss” broadacst–it was in October 1938, WAY after the 1926 date she gave.

  2. Matt has kindly made the correction a permanent part of the post, which now correctly notes 1938 as the year that a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ fictional “War of the Worlds” was believed by many who heard it to be true.

  3. I greatly enjoyed this review, which was not only well written and clear, but balanced and nuanced. Are balance and nunace still permissible? I sure hope so

  4. The “War of the Worlds” panic is a myth. Personally, I think that it survives on people’s delighting smugly in the thought that there were so many who were supposedly fooled by a radio broadcast, as I do when I see another repeating of the myth.
    From the BBC:

    The Halloween myth of the War of the Worlds panic

    By Professor W Joseph Campbell American University, Washington DC

    The radio show was so terrifying in its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays that it is remembered like no other radio programme.

    Or, more accurately, it is misremembered like no other radio programme.
    Radio unreality

    The panic and terror so routinely associated with The War of the Worlds dramatisation did not come close to a nationwide dimension that night 73 years ago.

    Sure, some Americans were frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not. They recognised it for what it was – a clever and entertaining radio play.

    The War of the Worlds dramatisation was the inspiration of Orson Welles, director and star of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, an hour-long programme that aired on Sunday evenings on CBS Radio.

    Welles was 23 years old, a prodigy destined for lasting fame as director and star of the 1941 motion picture, Citizen Kane.

    His adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a science fiction thriller written by HG Wells and published in 1898, was little short of brilliant.
    A radio broadcast of ‘The War Of The Worlds’ in 1952 Further radio dramatisations of War of the Worlds spread, including this British production in 1952

    What made the show so compelling was the use of simulated on-the-scene radio reports telling of the first landing of Martian invaders near Princeton, New Jersey, and their swift and deadly advance to New York City.

    American audiences had become accustomed to news reports interrupting radio programmes. They had heard them often during the war scare in Europe in late summer and early autumn of 1938.

    Welles played on this familiarity to stunning effect. In doing so, he created a delicious and tenacious media myth.

    Newspaper headlines across America told of the terror that Welles’ show supposedly created.

    “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” declared the New York Times. “Radio Fake Scares Nation,” cried the Chicago Herald and Examiner. “US Terrorized By Radio’s ‘Men From Mars,'” said the San Francisco Chronicle.
    Exaggerated effect

    Yet we know from several sources that the reports of thousands of panic-stricken Americans were wildly exaggerated.

    Hadley Cantril, a Princeton University psychologist, estimated that six million people listened to The War of the Worlds dramatisation. Of that number, perhaps 1.2 million listeners were “frightened” or “disturbed” by what they heard, Mr Cantril figured.
    Continue reading the main story
    “Start Quote

    For newspapers, the so-called “panic broadcast” brought newspapers an exceptional opportunity to censure radio”

    “Frightened” and “disturbed,” of course, are hardly synonymous with “panic-stricken.” Overall, Mr Cantril’s data signal that most listeners, by far, were not upset by the show.

    Close reading of contemporaneous newspaper reports also reveals the fright that night was highly exaggerated.

    Newspapers presented sweeping claims about thousands or even millions of panic-stricken Americans, but offered little supporting documentation.

    Most newspapers printed dispatches sent by wire services such as the Associated Press, which extrapolated widespread fear from small numbers of scattered, anecdotal accounts.

    Newspapers, moreover, reported no deaths or serious injuries related to The War of the Worlds broadcast: had panic and hysteria seized America that night, the mayhem surely would have caused many deaths and injuries.

    For newspapers, the so-called “panic broadcast” brought newspapers an exceptional opportunity to censure radio, a still-new medium that was becoming a serious competitor in providing news and advertising.

    Newspaper leader columns in the days immediately after the broadcast helped deepen the impression that Welles’ programme had sown hysteria.

    “Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities,” chided the New York Times. “It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”

    Despite its wobbly basis, the myth of mass panic remains steadfastly attached to The War of the Worlds programme. It is part of the lore of Orson Welles, the bad-boy genius who did his best work before he turned 30.

    And it’s a tale just too delectable not to be true.

    W Joseph Campbell is a professor at American University in Washington, DC. He wrote about the myth of The War of the Worlds programme in his latest book, Getting It Wrong. He often writes about media myths at his blog, Media Myth Alert.

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