Monday, November 21, 2011

Story matters

The East Bay Express ran an article in this week's issue titled Blaming the Bass. It's a California water-wars story. The article was a piece of political journalism, but what struck me had more to do with my interest in narrative than my interest in politics.

Background first: as many on the west coast of the U.S. know, we've got a bit of a salmon crisis going. In a sound byte, the Pacific salmon fishery collapsed in 2008.

Much evidence and the analysis of many scientists, environmentalists, and salmon fishermen indicates that water siphoned out of the San Joaquin River Delta has a great deal to do with this collapse. Many farmers, for whom said water is siphoned from the delta, are eager to find a different culprit. For background, you might start with Colin Sullivan's article, Salmon Fisherman Swim Against Political Tide in Long-Running California Water War (NY Times, 2 April 2010).

There's a convergence of interests in mitigating or reversing the conditions that have led to the collapse of the Pacific's salmon population, whatever those conditions might be. People like to eat salmon. People who are invested in fishing for salmon would like to continue to make a living that way. People who like hanging out in forests -- or who are convinced that healthy coasts and watersheds are fundamental to the health of our planet -- those folks are eager to get behind forms of environmental regulation that constrain and repair damage done to streams and rivers, in which salmon spawn.

Farmers in the state's Central Valley are, in some respects, a competing interest, and that's what Blaming the Bass is about in the East Bay Express this week.

In a nutshell: Some say that the collapse of the salmon fishery is less about water siphoned from the delta and more about too many bass that live in the delta. In this narrative, bass eat salmon smolt (young salmon) in quantities that significantly diminish the salmon population. Therefore, the proponents of this narrative argue, people who fish should be permitted to take more bass and younger (smaller) bass home with them than current Fish and Game Commission regulations permit, which would reduce the population of bass ... and, by extension, restore the salmon fishery without need (or without as much need) to limit water pumped out of the delta to irrigate farms.

In the counter-nutshell, others say that bass have little or nothing to do with declining salmon population, and that this business of killing bass to save salmon is piffle. Those who follow the money (and the water) argue that the bass-kill-salmon narrative is aimed simply and disingenuously at undermining effort to reverse diversion of water the salmon depend on to swim upstream and spawn. They say that undermining that effort is being spearheaded by agricultural interests for whom less water diverted to farms means less profit.

Who's telling the truth?

I have no expertise or authority that qualifies me to judge on your behalf. So I'm not going to say, at least not categorically. I do have my sense and sympathies that have evolved over years of following California water-wars ... and -- full disclosure -- as I have come to understand those wars I'm inclined to distrust agricultural interests that have acted with consistently reckless short-sightedness against those who seek shared water use among diverse interests and species.

So don't take my word on any of the substance of water-war issues. In fact, I'm not aiming to prove one story or another in this blog post. The thing I want to point out is how much is at stake -- politically and economically -- in telling the story of the salmon fishery's collapse. One way or another. I'd go so far as to say there's no such thing as a story that lacks a point of view.

As for how much is at stake in this particular story? Look at the NY Times article cited above, which tells us:

The plummeting catch has led to the cancellation of the commercial salmon season the past two years, causing the loss of 23,000 jobs and $2 billion in revenue, according to a study by Southwick Associates, an analytical firm that specializes in resource issues.

That's a lot of jobs and a lot of money.

So let's look a little more closely at how the narrative is being controlled and by whom in this week's East Bay Express story.

Professor Peter Moyle of UC Davis claims in the article that striped bass have been falsely implicated and used as a scapegoat for environmental damage caused mostly by the over-pumping of water from the delta. David Ostrach, formerly of UC Davis and a former colleage of Moyle's says that, "Striped bass and salmon and delta smelt all coexisted and thrived together until the 1960s, and these fish all concurrently declined when they turned on the switch of the water projects."

Still quoting from the Express:

Ostrach and Moyle both assert that no credible data exists showing that striped bass predation has ever had a significant impact on salmon numbers. They say that predation occurs substantially only in several isolated "hotspots" where pumps, levees, and artificial sloughs create a confusing network of waterways in which striped bass easily ambush wayward salmon smolts.

You might well ask whether the journalist who wrote this story, Alastair Bland, selectively picked expert sources sympathetic to a particular point of view, perhaps Bland's own. I don't know the answer to that question. I would like to think not, but then I tend to find scientists truthful, as I believe they are kept honest by community norms that require assertions to be justified by empirical evidence, and peers who check each others' sources and methods and facts.

I am less ready to trust in the honesty of industry-funded lobbying organizations like the so-called "Coalition for a Sustainable Delta" (cited in the story as a principal proponant of the narrative that blames striped bass for collapse of salmon population). That organization has a web site rife with that we're just citizens concerned with the common good look, combined as it is too often with reticence about just who funds the organization's activity. You know what I mean, it's that industry-funded lobbying organization look that is evident throughout our nation's twenty-first century corporatocracy. Go ahead, look for yourself.

(It's true, I'm not taking a 'centrist' stance, in which all opinions are treated as equally plausible. I lean one way and not another, and I won't pretend otherwise.)

Interestingly, Paul Krugman, my personal-favorite among op-ed writing, Nobel-prizewinning economists, had something to say about neutrality and centrists just this past Friday. On the topic of then-imminent failure of the Congressional "supercommittee" charged with proposing a way out of future federal deficits, here's Krugman's view of how the news media and pundits have contributed to the current state of the federal budget narrative:
So the supercommittee brought together legislators who disagree completely both about how the world works and about the proper role of government. Why did anyone think this would work?

Well, maybe the idea was that the parties would compromise out of fear that there would be a political price for seeming intransigent. But this could only happen if the news media were willing to point out who is really refusing to compromise. And they aren't. If and when the supercommittee fails, virtually all news reports will be he-said, she-said, quoting Democrats who blame Republicans and vice versa without ever explaining the truth.

Oh, and let me give a special shout-out to "centrist" pundits who won't admit that President Obama has already given them what they want. The dialogue seems to go like this. Pundit: "Why won't the president come out for a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes?" Mr. Obama: "I support a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes." Pundit: "Why won't the president come out for a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes?"

You see, admitting that one side is willing to make concessions, while the other isn't, would tarnish one's centrist credentials. And the result is that the G.O.P. pays no price for refusing to give an inch.

Scientists, environmentalists, and fishermen are trying to control the narrative of why the Pacific salmon fishery collapsed, backing up their story with history and evidence. The bass-blaming farmers and their blandly-named coalition are trying to control the narrative too, backing up theirs with things that look less historical and less honest to me -- but you'll have to decide for yourself which story you believe.

See, everybody tries to control narratives.

The so-called "birthers" tried to shift perceptions about the legitimacy of the Obama presidency by making up stories about his birth certificate. Climate-change deniers attempt to spin the miniscule percentage of credentialed scientists who argue that humans have nothing to do with global warming into a narrative about a 'split' in scientific opinion. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau tried to tell a story a week and a half ago in which non-violent protesters incited a police beating, but then he realized that evidence contradicted his claims and changed his tune. Critics of the Occupy protests tell stories that paint the entire movement as a ragtag, violent, and unhygenic convergence of hooligans and hooliganism; Occupy naïfs tell stories in which the destructive or violent acts of some don't count because the vast majority of protesters and supporters aren't participating in those acts.

Each of these narratives has its believers, sad to say. There's enormous power and consequence in shaping such stories. Narratives take root, and come to govern what people believe, how they behave, what political leadership and initiatives they support.

In a better world -- in my idea of a better world, anyway -- critical analysis would play a greater role in shaping belief, behavior, and political loyalties. But in the world we've got? Story matters. You've just got to hope that people will, more often than not, discount the stories that veer furthest and most irresponsibly from truth.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Henry IV and Berkeley G.O.P.'s 'diversity bake sale'
Starbucks' vacuum-packed greenwashing
Allusion in fiction
Am I my fiction's protagonist?


  1. So why do you think the Democrats are so bad at producing narrative? This is something that really bugs me and to which I've never heard a convincing answer.

  2. Robert Reich had a piece on this question in The New Republic six or seven years ago. Here's a PDF of the article, though I haven't had a chance to confirm that it's a complete copy. In it Reich points out that Democrats did a great job of telling stories in the early twentieth century. Then they seem to have forgotten how. It's a nice analysis from a very smart guy.

  3. That is a very coherent explanation, and frightening on many fronts. Thanks for sharing it. Gives me much food for thought about as we head into the season of American excess...