Politics and Sharks

by Sheila Connolly

Happy first Monday of March! Only eight months left until the national election.

Since I write about Ireland, I’ve bookmarked the website for RTE News (that’s Raidió Teilifís Éireann, the sort of semi-public news source for the Republic of Ireland). I read the headlines, which vary from serious to funny, and include a lot of weather reports.

Recently one headline caught my eye: “Shark attacks and democratic elections.” No, this was not written as an election summary, either American or Irish. It’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek commentary on how elections are reported and interpreted.

Shark mapIt begins with a statement by a Trinity College emeritus professor, who wrote that a record number of shark attacks were reported worldwide in the past year. Most were in Florida, no surprise. But then he went on to say that there was a series of shark attacks in New Jersey early in the last century (1916, to be precise)—a first for the state—as reported by two senior professors at Princeton at the time.

What, the author of the RTE article asked, does this have to do with 2016 elections? Apparently the New Jersey attacks occurred in a presidential election year. Evidence shows that the incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, lost in those counties where the shark attacks took place. And somehow, in the press, the president was blamed for the attacks.

Woodrow Wilson

The message seems to be that when unpredictable disasters that no government could possibly control occur, elected officials pay a penalty at the polls.

It’s not logical, but it’s true. And it makes an entertaining story, doesn’t it? Sharks sink president? Which leads me to think about how both campaign personnel and reporters craft a story (albeit from opposite directions)—one that is intended to sell either the candidate or more papers (or digital subscriptions these days). Keep your articles short and sensationalistic and people will pay attention—and believe what they say. The headlines don’t have to be accurate, and few readers are checking the facts.

So it’s all about crafting a story, in both the short and the long term. That often means stringing together a series of “highs” that grab attention and that people will remember (like all those “-gate” titles). Kind of like a thriller novel, right? Something must always be happening, to keep you turning the pages. You the reader don’t even stop to think about the credibility of the event (oh, sure, I believe that character jumped off the Empire State Building and landed on that helicopter strut, grabbing it with one hand while he shot the pilot with the gun he managed to hold on to during his frantic leap, and he then flew the helicopter to safety with the kidnapped wife of a foreign leader and her dog), because you’re so caught up in the story. For a writer, that’s good, but for a politician? Not so much.

Should we as writers be encouraged or depressed? It seems that people are eager to embrace fiction, if it’s exciting enough. As writers we can produce that. We can structure a story to keep the reader turning the pages. But in the real world? Let’s hope that voters can distinguish fact from fiction.

Do you have any favorite political headlines? Like “Thomas Dewey beats Harry S. Truman” from 1948? (If you try your best to ignore all political noise, I don’t blame you!)

12 Thoughts

  1. Fascinating, Sheila!

    When Jack Kennedy first ran for president, they kept announcing on TV that Nixon had won. Everyone in my family went to bed disappointed, but learned the next day he’d won. Everybody celebrated some more until they again announced that Nixon had won. It went like that for a few days. 🙂

  2. Very interesting — we do want our politicians to be superheros too. They need the power to wave a wand and make congress work together.

  3. It seems like modern politics is too much about egos and not enough about making the country work for the people who elected the politicians. Didn’t we all learn about cooperation in grammar school?

  4. Please just give me my nice “safe” cozy mystery worlds, where justice is always served. Or even noncozy worlds, where dangerous renegade sharks get hunted down and eliminated with bigger boats. I really, really wish there was a bigger boat right now because there’s some frightening stuff in the waters and a whole lotta people throwing chum. And that’s all I can say about current politics without going off on an insane rant 🙂

  5. I know what you mean. I alternate between exclaiming “I can’t believe he just said that!” with yelling at the television (but to be fair, I yell at under-educated contestants on Jeopardy too. “What, you don’t know the Greek etymology of that term??).

    Please note: I wrote an entire book (Sour Apples) that centered around a congressional election (and a cow was briefly accused of murder), and never once did I mention the candidate’s political party. It simply wasn’t important to the story.

  6. Sadly, this is nothing new in politics. Politicians have lied, and the news media has lied about them for years. It seems to be worse this year, but it’s just the latest in the evolution of what has happened over the last couple of centuries. Which is always depressing to think about.

    Hats off to you, Sheila, for not mentioning the party of the candidate in your book. I’ve read a couple mysteries where the author had to throw it in there just so they could drag out their own political preferences, which was a real turn off.

    To lighten the mood, here’s a great quote from Mark Twain (who is always great for a quote): “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

  7. It almost makes you want to go back in time and read the tabloids from a century ago. Of course, there has always been plenty of fodder–mistresses, the occasional love-child, financial messes. I don’t think I’ll be running for Congress any time soon!

    By the way, the candidate in the book won the seat, and the cow was exonerated. (I think the cow was my attempt at humor, to lighten the story.)

  8. Can’t think of a headline yet the sound bites coming from this election may be unforgettable. Its a sad state of affairs when Presidential candidates are discussing hand size in national debates. Geez….

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