Marie-Laure Ryan: “Sharpiegate” as a Network of Stories

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.


It was my original intent to open this blog with some narratological considerations about how the current storytelling movement favors “experientiality” and “what it is like” -based conceptions of narrative (Fludernik; Herman) over plot-based conceptions that emphasize causality, agency, problem-solving and the explanatory value of narrative. But then I came across an example that caught my imagination as it was unfolding live in the media, and that contradicts the above statement: it is all about plotting (by the characters), and the representation of emotions does not come into play, though of course one can argue that the behavior of the characters was to some extent emotionally motivated. This narrative is known as Sharpiegate (following the post-Watergate usage of “gate” as a suffix meaning “political scandal”), and it unfolded from September 1 to September 11, 2019 as what Françoise Revaz has called a “feuilleton médiatique” — a media serial. Here are the installments (a listing of the sources can be found in the Wikipedia entry):

inarr-trump

 (Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

  1. Trump’s tweet

September 1, as hurricane Dorian is approaching the U.S., but before it hits the Bahamas, President Trump (who had cancelled a trip to Poland to monitor the hurricane) issues the following tweet: “In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”

  1. The Birmingham Weather disclaimer

September 1, 20 minutes after Trump’s tweet (1): The Birmingham Weather forecast tweets a disclaimer: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”

  1. Trump’s corrective tweeting

September 2 to 5: At least partly in response to the Birmingham Weather disclaimer (2), Trump in multiple tweets insists that he was right—Alabama WAS in the possible path of the storm. On September 4, during an Oval Office briefing on the status of Hurricane Dorian, Trump produces a doctored National Hurricane Service map [from August 29] to prove his point. On the map, the cone of possible paths of Dorian is extended with a black sharpie pen line to include a small part of Alabama. When asked about the sharpie doctoring, Trump says he does not know anything about it. The next day, Trump tweets: “Alabama was going to be hit or grazed, and then Hurricane Dorian took a different path (up along the East Coast). The Fake News knows this very well. That’s why they’re the Fake News!”

  1. NOAA unsigned statement

September 6: Officials at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce) release an unsigned statement about the Alabama matter. The statement referred to the Birmingham Weather disclaimer (2) as “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

  1. NOAA protest of earlier statement

September 6, afternoon: Scientists at NOAA protest NOAA unsigned statement (4). Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA, sends an all-staff email showing support of the Birmingham weather forecasters against the unsigned statement (4). On Monday, September 9, Louis Ucellini, director of the National Weather Service, says in a public speech: “Let me be clear: The Birmingham office did this to stop public panic, to ensure public safety – the same goal as all the National Weather Service offices were working toward at that time.”

  1. NYT NOAA firings report

September 9: the New York Times reports that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross threatened to fire managers at NOAA over the Birmingham Weather disclaimer (2).

  1. NOAA firings denial

September 9: The Commerce Department denies the NYT NOAA firings report (6).

  1. The Post report of Trump’s involvement

September 11: The Washington Post reports that Trump personally pressed an aide to ask NOAA to produce the NOAA unsigned statement (4).

  1. Trump’s denial of involvement

September 11: Trump tells reporters (referring to The Post report of Trump’s involvement (8)): “No, I never did that. I never did that. It’s a hoax by the media. That’s just fake news.”

  1. House Committee investigation

September 11: Members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which has jurisdiction over NOAA, launch an investigation into the Commerce Department’s interactions with NOAA regarding Dorian. They are specifically interested in the two directives from NOAA to the National Weather Service and the issuance of the September 6 statement.

To consider this list a narrative, one must extend the conception of narrative beyond James Phelan’s definition: “Somebody telling somebody else that something happened.” Sharpiegate differs from this definition because it is not told retrospectively, from the perspective of the end, but rather develops in real time, which means that as the installments reach the reader, the action is ongoing and has not yet reached a conclusion. Every new day can potentially bring a new twist in the plot, and different people will follow the story for a different amount of time. Another difference from Phelan’s formula is that there is no narrator in the outline presented above, just a collection of events that I picked from the stream of news that continually flows out of the media. It is my interpretive act that turns this list of data into a coherent story; the story, therefore, is a mental construct. If one conceives narrative as an artifact deliberately created to convey a story, one could argue that in this case there is strictly speaking no narrative at all, there is just a story suggested by events that happen in the world. In standard narrative communication, stories are constructed by readers out of data presented by the discourse of a narrator, but here there is no encompassing, top-down narrative consciousness that organizes all the documents for the reader to interpret. The organization of the data into distinct entries is strictly mine; I could have bundled information differently (for instance by distinguishing the Trump tweets of September 2 and 3 from the sharpie incident of September 4), or made a different selection (omitting (10) altogether, since it will be several weeks before it produces a decision, if at all). But my selection is not arbitrary; if the various entries suggest a coherent story, it is because each of them refers and reacts to a previous entry, thus forming a neat causal chain of moves and countermoves:

2 (The Birmingham Weather disclaimer) corrects 1 (Trump’s tweet);

3 (Trump’s corrective tweeting) and 4 (NOAA unsigned statement) correct 2;

6 (NYT NOAA firings report) and 8 (The Post report of Trump’s involvement) correct 4;

7 (NOAA firings denial) corrects 6; and 9 (Trump’s denial of involvement) corrects 8.

10 (House Committee investigation) proposes to review the whole sequence, in order to decide whether the denied facts or the denials are true.

While the story I extract out of the data I have selected is an interpretation, the data itself consists of objectively existing, verifiable documents: it is an undeniable fact that Trump tweeted (1) and (3), that he displayed a map that had been altered with a sharpie pen to prove his point, that the officials at NOAA discredited the report of the weather forecasters of Birmingham, etc. These facts concern communicative acts that actually occurred. But the content of communicative acts does not necessarily correspond to facts: the proposition “John said that p” can be true even if p is false. It is indeed the truth of its component speech acts that constitutes the topic, the aboutness of the story. In one possible storification of the data, the proposition of Trump’s tweet (1), that Alabama would be hit by Dorian, was plausible at the time it was released, and Sharpiegate was not really a scandal, as the suffix gate suggests, but an instance of presidential harassment by the “fake news industry,” of which the New York Times and the Washington Post are prominent representatives.

In this interpretation (let’s call it scenario A):

Trump’s tweet (1) is true (or rather, possible at the time it was communicated),

The Birmingham Weather disclaimer (2) is false,

Trump’s corrective tweeting (3) is true;

NOAA unsigned statement (4) is justified,

NOAA protest of earlier statement (5) is not,

NYT NOAA firings report (6) is fake news,

NOAA firings denial (7) is true,

The Post report of Trump’s involvement (8) is fake news,

Trump’s denial of involvement (9) is true.

(These values concern the embedded content of the communicative acts.) In the other interpretation (scenario B, which reflects more closely Trump’s reputation as a pathological liar and is by far the most dominant in the mediascape):

The content of Trump’s tweet (1) is false,

The Birmingham Weather disclaimer (2) is true,

Trump’s corrective tweeting (3) is false,

NOAA unsigned statement (4) is a cover-up,

NOAA protest of earlier statement (5) is a justified reaction to (4),

NYT NOAA firings report (6) is true,

NOAA firings denial (7) is a lie,

The Post report of Trump’s involvement (8) is true,

Trump’s denial of involvement (9) is a lie.

The moral of this version turns out to be something like errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum: by trying to cover up an insignificant mistake, Trump digs himself deeper and deeper into trouble and exposes the corruption of his administration and the flaws of his character. In so doing he acts like a child who tells big lies to hide a small misbehavior and gets into serious trouble, while punishment could have been easily avoided by admitting the mistake right away.

The storification of the data involves not only the assignment of truth value to the content of its communicative acts, it also requires the attribution of goals and plans to the agents. I have called these goals and plans “virtual embedded narratives” because they consist of causally linked sequence of events and actions (hence narratives) imagined by the characters as future possible developments that may or may not be actualized (hence, virtual). The actions of characters aim at either their realization or their prevention. The intent of Trump in mentioning Alabama is murky (honest mistake? misunderstanding of how hurricanes develop? slip of the tongue? political motivation?) but all these beliefs are compatible with scenario B, while scenario A is compatible with only one intent: Trump’s justified belief that hurricane Dorian threatens Alabama. From the Birmingham Weather disclaimer (2) on, the embedded narratives of motivations become much more specific, and diverge very sharply according to the two scenarios. It may seem clear that the Birmingham weather people wanted to prevent a panic and needless evacuation, but fanatic partisans of scenario A could argue that (2) was part of vast conspiracy to humiliate the President. Scenarios A and B thus consist of the same facts (those listed in my summary, which carefully avoids interpretation), but they differ on the level of subjective motivations and valuation of the communicated contents.

Is Sharpiegate an instrumental narrative produced to serve a specific goal? Originally not—it’s just a sequence of events that took place without top-down design. However, once it happened and reached an end—an end rather than a closure: it just ceased to inspire new moves by its protagonists—Sharpiegate became narrative material that can be told from a retrospective point of view, and that can serve a political agenda. A case in point is the retelling of the story according to scenario B by Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, a left-leaning TV channel passionately dedicated to the defeat of Trump in the 2020 election. By contrast, Sean Hannity of the Trump-supporting Fox news and a personal friend of the President made no mention of the story, thereby demonstrating that disnarration can be as biased and as instrumental as narration.

When a story captures the public’s imagination, it continues to grow, by incorporating new materials, new details, or by inspiring other stories. Sharpiegate is no exception. It was expanded by the Washington Post into an “oral history” titled “This is not just a stupid story, it’s a big story” that includes the reactions and opinions of many peripheral characters, such as NOAA officials, members of the Birmingham weather bureau, hurricane victims and even a Trump supporter. From this expanded version we learn that the Birmingham weather forecasters claim that they did not respond to Trump’s tweet, of which they had no knowledge, but to signs of panic in the Alabama population. Sharpiegate inspired countless opinion pieces and letters to the editor that range from attacks on the media for blowing up a trivial incident to comparison of Trump’s distortion of facts with the policies of the state in George Orwell’s 1984. It became a favorite target of comedians and political cartoonists, who created a profusion of images altered with sharpie lines showing, among other things, that the wall is finished, that Trump is taller than Obama, or that the curve of climate change is declining. But just as popular stories generate new stories, they are also shaped by other, larger stories. If Sharpiegate matters, it is because it is read in the context of Trump’s attitude toward science, of his handling of previous hurricanes, of his war on the media, of his refusal to admit any mistakes, and more generally, in the context of the ongoing drama of his reelection.

Try to google Sharpiegate: there is so much material that you will only be able to scratch the surface. But just as hurricanes flatten everything in their path, Sharpiegate will soon be swept away by the next wave of the Sea of Stories (to borrow Salman Rushdie’s expression), sharing the fate of so many other scandals that seem huge only as long as they ride the crest of the current media wave.

References:

Fludernik, Monika. Towards a ‘natural’ narratology. London: Routledge, 1996.

Herman, David. Basic elements of narrative. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

“Hurricane Dorian: Alabama controversy.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Dorian%E2%80%93Alabama_controversy

Phelan, James. Narrative as rhetoric: techniques, audiences, ethics, ideology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996.

Revaz, Françoise. Introduction à la narratologie: action et narration. Brussels: de Boeck et Duculot, 2009.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Possible worlds, artificial intelligence and narrative theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

“This is not just a stupid story, it’s a big story: an oral history of Sharpiegate.” Washington Post. https://www.adn.com/nation-world/2019/09/14/this-isnt-just-a-stupid-story-its-a-big-story-an-oral-history-of-sharpiegate/

mlr

A native of Geneva, Switzerland, Marie-Laure Ryan is an independent scholar based in Colorado, working currently in the areas of narrative theory, media theory, and representations of space. She is the author of Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory (1991), Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (2001, 2nd edition 2015), Avatars of Story (2006) and the co-author of Narrating Space/Spatializing Narrative (2016), as well as the editor of several books. Her latest (co-edited with Alice Bell) is Possible Worlds Theory and Contemporary Narratology (Nebraska, 2019). She has been scholar in residence at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Johannes Gutenberg Fellow at the University of Mainz, Germany. In 2017 she received the lifetime achievement award from the International Society for the Study of Narrative. Her web site is at www.marilaur.info

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