Tempus Fugit: Media, Technology, and Storytelling Methods

Our rapidly changing media environment uses new technology and, in some cases, new storytelling methods.

Time Flies … Backwards … Seriously

– Maira Kalman. “Principles of Uncertainty”. New York Times

The New York Times

When The New York Times ceased its subscription service Times Select earlier this year, Maira Kalman‘s illustrated column, “The Principles of Uncertainty”, was one of the treasures that became freely available to all readers. What was less noticeable at the moment was that The New York Times archive had also been shorn free of its payment system, and stories going back decades had been given permalinks. The New York Times became a time machine, showing us how events and people were perceived in their own time.

A review of Disney’s 2003 television adaptation of Kay Thompson’s smart, sly children’s book Eloise shows how we can be misled if we don’t grasp how something relates to its own time.

In 1955, the year ”Eloise” came out, Lee Ann Meriwether was crowned Miss America, and the top-rated television show was ”The $64,000 Question” on CBS. Eisenhower was president, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy was tarnished but still in office. That year, the Brooklyn Dodgers finally beat the New York Yankees in the World Series, the Soviet Union coaxed seven East European nations into the Warsaw Pact and Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus.

”Eloise” was part of a different 1955. Hers was the year that Nabokov published ”Lolita,” that ”Marty” won the Oscar for Best Picture and Cole Porter’s musical ”Silk Stockings” opened at the Imperial Theater in New York.

Thompson’s book was on best-seller lists along with Graham Greene’s ”Quiet American” but its irreverence and frivolity echoed the songs of Tom Lehrer, whose first album came out in 1953; the funny-macabre illustrations of Edward Gorey; and even the cruel wit of Kingsley Amis’s ”Lucky Jim.”

In 1989, as he was finishing the Civil War documentary that would establish a new style of building documentary films around vintage still images, Ken Burns reviewed a retrospective of the documentaries of the journalist Bill Moyers. “At one point in ‘Cowboys,’ a documentary produced in 1976 (as part of ‘Bill Moyers’s Journal’) about the difficult but rewarding life of cowboys in northwestern Colorado, one of the subjects says, ”All we can know is our own time,” wrote Burns. “For Bill Moyers, one of the most celebrated and at times controversial producers of documentary films, it is a key phrase: ‘That is what compels me as a journalist, to know as much as I can of my own time.'”

In 1988 Moyers had a stupendous hit with his public television series The Power of Myth, built around conversations with Joseph Campbell, who’d devoted his life to finding connections between mythologies across cultures and through time. George Lucas was an admirer of Campbell’s and drew from his books for the spiritual dimension of the Star Wars films. Five of the conversations were recorded at his Skywalker studios and another at the Museum of Natural History in New York not long before Campbell died in 1987. It was “the sleeper of sleepers” that “no-one wanted to show” wrote Burns, but audiences were galvanized. “Viewers saw a strange and wonderful sight: There, in prime time, was a mesmerizing look at the question of the soul’s survival.”

Reviewer John Corry wrote in May 1988: “Talk about old fashioned! ‘Moyers: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth’ is Stone Age television: six hours in which Bill Moyers and Mr. Campbell talk to each other and hardly ever get out of their chairs. Is this boring? Sometimes it is; most of the time it is not.” He concluded: “Mr. Moyers is doing something special.” John J. O’Connor wrote in The New York Times in May of 1988: “When pressed to define American television at its best, I find myself frequently mentioning the name of Bill Moyers. The point is, at bottom, a matter of the medium taking itself seriously rather than merely going for the obvious. Mr. Moyers takes himself and the rest of us very seriously.”

In a 1995 New York Times interview with Jon Pareles, Leonard Cohen explained the attraction of seriousness: “How do we produce work that touches the heart? We don’t want to live a frivolous life, we don’t want to live a superficial life. We want to be serious with each other, with our friends, with our work. That doesn’t necessarily mean gloomy or grim, but seriousness has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it. It is something that we are deeply hungry for, to take ourselves seriously and to be able to enjoy the nourishment of seriousness, that gravity, that weight.”

Joseph Campbell’s premise is that mythology is the weight that anchors us in our search for a meaningful existence. Ancient stories can guide us through the stages in our own lives, and the works of artists and spiritual figures who give these timeless messages a new context in our time in their works link us to our societies. Mythology gives us a deep sense of the continuity of life, and without that realization we’re buffetted around on the surface of the concerns of the day that we read in newspapers.

Bill Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?

Joseph Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read The New York Times.

Bill Moyers: And you’d find?

Joseph Campbell: The news of the day, including destructive acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society.

The Power of Myth.

As our media has moved online, we’ve been distracted by fast-moving images and dumbed-down analyses, and the past has been erased or placed out of our reach as searches turn up broken links. We’re led to ghost sites trapped within superseded technological formats. The powerful stories and technological developments in the media in 2007 were serious and gave us ways to connect to the past and see the big picture, often symbolically.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Back in May, Australia’s drought had become so severe that the major cities were beginning to calculate how many months of drinking water was left. It was announced there would be little to no water available to farmers along the Murray-Darling Rivers for irrigation from July. Former Prime Minister John Howard was yet to opportunistically evolve from a climate change skeptic to a climate change “realist”.

Australians were bereft of government leadership on climate change issues, but The Sydney Morning Herald did something remarkable. It used the occasion of the publication of a new cookbook by Margaret Fulton to address the concerns of Australians about the future of their food and water supplies by allowing public figures who are actively protective of the quality of Australia’s food and the environment to speak directly to the readers.

Fulton is now in her 80s and has taught generations of Australians respect for fresh food and its preparation and dining rituals. She’d emerged from an era when housewives baked pretty cakes and opened cans of food they’d been persuaded to buy from television commercials. She’d been the food editor for a women’s magazine and a presenter on television, shilling for kitchen wares. The Sydney Morning Herald asked who she’d like to have lunch with. She suggested Dr. Tim Flannery, an environmental scientist, zoologist, and explorer. His book, The Future Eaters, is an ecological history of Australia, first published in the ’90s, and was an early alarm call about the onset of catastrophic environmental changes. They ate lunch at Justin North’s Sydney restaurant Becasse.

The story had brilliant conceptual clarity and simplicity. It was mostly a transcript of an undirected conversation and is as engaging as Bill Moyers’s conversations with Joseph Campbell. It also worked equally well as a traditional newspaper story and in an unforced multi-media package with audio and photographs on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website.

Justin North talked about our shared environmental responsibilities:

When I opened the first Becasse in Surry Hills it was all about trying to get good produce at a reasonable price. Where it came from didn’t really matter. But you wake up over time and I realised that I have a responsibility to do my part. I still want to be cooking in 10 years’ time and with really good produce. But if I go about things in a haphazard way and don’t care for the environment with my purchases, there will be produce that I won’t be able to get. As you mature as a chef these things become more important to your own philosophy and in a commercial sense as well. People are putting more demands on us: they do want organic and sustainable produce.

In August, The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Wendy Frew drew attention to a report that calculated the effect Australian consumers have on their environment.

New data shows the electricity and water used to produce everything people buy – from food and clothing to CDs and electrical appliances – far outweighs any efforts to save water and power in the home, according to an extensive analysis by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the University of Sydney.

Wealthy families in suburbs such as Woollahra, North Sydney, Mosman and Ku-ring-gai, who can afford to install solar power and large water tanks, still have the biggest ecological footprint because of the goods and services they buy.

At lunch, Flannery mentioned Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which he reviewed for The New York Review of Books. Pollan has a new book, In Defense of Food, about to be released. Meanwhile, Sunday’s New York Times published an essay on sustainability.

We’re asking a lot of our bees. We’re asking a lot of our pigs too. That seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize production and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural systems and organisms to their limit, asking them to function as efficiently as machines. When the inevitable problems crop up — when bees or pigs remind us they are not machines — the system can be ingenious in finding “solutions,” whether in the form of antibiotics to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to help pollinate the almonds. But this year’s solutions have a way of becoming next year’s problems. That is to say, they aren’t “sustainable.”

From this perspective, the story of Colony Collapse Disorder and the story of drug-resistant staph are the same story. Both are parables about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.

– Michael Pollan. “Our Decrepit Food Factories.” 16 December 2007. The New York Times


The moving image is the alpha predator of the online world, and it’s obscured the power of the still image. Advertisements shimmy and shake around the edges of our e-mail and zip across articles on newspaper websites. Blogs are increasingly studded with YouTube video segments. But MediaStorm has done much to restore the symbolic power of photojournalism to distill and crystallise complex stories that range over a long period in the language of multi-media. It creates multi-media packages with big media organizations (the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times among them) but also curious, abstract pieces that stand alone on its website as something like independent films.

Twenty-one years ago, the world’s worst nuclear accident occurred at Chornobyl in Ukraine. Paul Fusco‘s photographs of the children who have been disfigured and destroyed by their poisoned environment are a new kind of elegy, a mourning for the living dead, for children who will never be wholly alive. On the MediaStorm website are images from the book Chernobyl Legacy with a spoken commentary backed by a solo cello musical track.

Wherever there is radiation, people live with it. They eat it in their food. They drink it in their water.

The kids at Novinki who are troubled, diagnosed, they are categorized… A, B, C, D.

Well D, hopeless, they are never going be real human beings. They will never obtain much. They all go to Novinki.

And, once they get there, if they survive and live they will be sent to the main asylum.

It was like a different race was being farmed because they look human but they were all troubled in very obvious ways.

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which begins as a series of nuclear explosions destroys the environment, a father goes on a journey with his son, who was born a few days after the explosions. The child intuits compassion, joy, loyalty, and a system of ethics from his father’s acts of self-sacrifice. The father continually asks himself whether it was wrong and selfish to have brought a child into such a world. Despite everything, there is hope threaded through the story. The child sees another little boy somewhere on their travels.

I’m scared that he was lost.

I think he’s all right.

But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?

Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.

Cormac McCarthy. The Road.

We may not be able to restore the ruined world to a paradise, McCarthy suggests, but we can repair our souls. Despite everything, we are still able to love. Paul Fusco’s photograph of a father tenderly cradling a baby suffering from a tumor bigger than its head tells the story of McCarthy’s book in one image. In the big stories of our times, what’s small and quiet becomes powerful and enduring: A photograph showing a father’s love for his disfigured child. … Ceremonial silence while the names of dead soldiers scroll across a television screen at the end of a news bulletin. …