I received my first and most transformative lesson about message framing in 1997.
I was still new to journalism at the time, and the experience of one particular story showed me with high drama just how much power words have to change an outcome. How much they really matter.
All these years later, Angela’s story remains one of the most pivotal events of my life. It’s why I do what I do today. It’s the real “why” I’m writing this blog.
In politics and activism, in business and marketing, any place in public discourse, you hear a lot about “controlling the narrative.”
Every time you hear about “fake news” or “telling your story,” in some way you’re talking about controlling the narrative. In holistic health, practitioners talk about controlling the narrative of your body to direct your healing.
We tell stories to remember, to heal, to move people to action, and a large number of other reasons.
Angela’s story reminds me every day of the struggle to control the narrative. Reminds me what we’re always up against.
How It Started
I covered many things as a reporter and editor at the erstwhile San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative news weekly that set the tone, and often the agenda, for local activists for nearly 50 years.
I wrote about consumer affairs, travel, books, and politics, especially freedom-of-information and open-government issues. In 1997 I took on medical marijuana, which California voters had legalized less than a year earlier.
My writing on weed became well known among activists, who appreciated that someone was taking the issue seriously besides publications like Marijuana News. Mainstream news covered the legalization campaign but little else except the sensational; rarely the deeper issues.
This is not, however, a story about marijuana — just like Battlestar Galactica is not really a story about outer space, but a tale of the human condition that’s set in outer space. Just sayin’.
Anyway, among my sources was a pair of brothers who opened the first hemp clothing boutique in San Francisco, on bustling 24th Street in the sunny Noe Valley district.
Like many shops on 24th Street, the Frankel brothers’ hemp clothing boutique was narrow but ran deep into the block, with a loft that added floor space. To promote their opening, they got the actor Woody Harrelson — who’d been busted for illegally planting pot in Kentucky as an act of civil disobedience — to lead a yoga class there. The place was so packed that if one person fell in tree pose it would’ve toppled the whole forest.
One of the brothers ran the store by day, the other was an attorney specializing in marijuana cases. As a bunch of us smoked out back one fine August evening, the attorney told me about a recent case he’d heard about on the other side of the country, in the small town of Hoover, Alabama, just outside the capital, Birmingham.
Angela G. owned a small clothing boutique not unlike his own. A couple months earlier, she had been working alone in the shop when the Hoover police surrounded it SWAT-style and, um, let themselves in.
“The Hoover police does this drug bust routine where they drive up in cars, with video cameras and guns,” Angela told me when I interviewed her.
With no witnesses present, they made her lock the door and then spent 90 minutes searching for the item on the warrant: marijuana.
Angela was eight months pregnant, but the police made her stand the whole time, refusing to let her sit or even use the restroom during their raid.
Of course they found no marijuana. Angela didn’t smoke it, nor her employees, nor did her store sell smoking paraphernalia or anything related to pot. What the police seized was 160 hats, bags, and clothing items — all made from hemp.
Hemp vs. Marijuana
A brief aside: Hemp is not marijuana. Both are cannabis sativa, but marijuana is the THC-bearing flower of the female plant, while hemp comes from the long, fibrous stalk of a different strain containing little or no THC.
If you tried to smoke a hat made of hemp, you’d fry your lungs long before you got high.
In Hoover, you could buy hemp items at Wal-Mart and hundreds of other stores, even in 1997. So it’s not like Angela was doing something unusual in her community.
But she was young and liberal, not a big, popular chain, and she blamed local religious groups for targeting her. “We were the last store to open selling hemp and the first ones raided,” she told me.
The Law and My Deadline Approach
The police found nothing, but don’t think that slowed them down. Angela and her husband (a computer programmer not connected with the store) were both charged — sit down for this — with felony marijuana trafficking. They each faced mandatory minimum sentences of three years in jail and fines of $25,000. Their children — a newborn by this point, and a two-year-old daughter — would become wards of the state.
I’d once been a volunteer at our local suicide prevention hotline, but I rarely heard a caller sound as depressed as Angela did while she told me all this over the phone. At times she could barely speak. Her life was about to be destroyed for selling hats.
I hung up and worked her into my article, which was about hemp legalization, not marijuana. I opened with Angela’s story to illustrate the excesses of the war on drugs and its intolerant ideology.
About two weeks after I’d started the assignment, my story appeared in the August 20 issue, just six days before Angela and her husband were scheduled for their hearing.
Word Gets Around
As it happened, one reader was a Bay Area medical marijuana activist named Steve Kubby, who was running for governor of California on the Libertarian Party ticket. The election was a year away.
It’s hard to imagine now, but campaign websites were a novelty in 1997, like the World Wide Web itself. Facebook and Twitter were not even a gleam in anyone’s eye. Bulletin board platforms like AOL were the thing. Activists and politicians had indeed started to use the internet, but a campaign website was not the must-have it is today.
Kubby, however, was ahead of the curve. And he threw a curve. On his website he issued a “travel advisory” warning people not to travel to Alabama, and he pointed to my article to explain why.
I was of course pleased to get noticed. But I was surprised by a phone call I received the next day from a reporter at Georgia’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the major metropolitan daily in Angela’s area.
The reporter (whose last name, coincidentally, was Stoner, and we had a good laugh) had found my story through Kubby’s website. He was curious how I, in faraway California, had managed to break a story in his own backyard. So I told him what I knew and put him in touch with my sources.
I never actually saw Stoner’s article, but I soon learned what happened.
The short of it is this: Word spread fast, and over the next few days the Hoover police, the mayor of Birmingham, and the governor of Alabama got so much bad press and so many phone calls from outraged potheads and activists around the country that they dropped all the charges against Angela and her husband.
When I talked to Angela a few days later, she sounded like a different person. Her voice bubbled, she seemed almost giddy. She was about to take her kids and their friends to the beach. She told me she was putting together a scrapbook with all the press clippings about her case.
All the press clippings. My 296 words had become a stack of clips to fill a scrapbook.
Five paragraphs I wrote kept an innocent woman out of jail, and a family together, and I’ll always be proud of that. But I’m not here now to pat myself on the back.
What matters is what I saw happen.
I didn’t even know the phrase at the time, but this was the first time I got to control the narrative. I didn’t know I was doing it, but I could see what I had done.
In fact, it was simple: I told Angela’s story in a clear, concise, and compelling way, and I told it first. That was enough. After that it was simply unassailable, even when I had nothing more to do with it.
What I concluded was this:
Whoever tells the story first and best — wins.
That sounds simplistic in today’s complex media world, but I don’t think it is. It’s where “controlling the narrative” starts.
Is Truth Inconvenient?
All the same, I have come to see a glaring problem with my simple dictum:
The “first and best” story may win, but it doesn’t have to be true.
Examples are everywhere you look: lies and deceptions that have won, that are winning, because they were told first and most compellingly.
When we can’t tell real from fake news, or fact from opinion, or advertising from reporting, when only first and best matters — well, how do you know who to believe in such a world?
The Age of Lies
Since Angela, telling the story first and best has been my mission as a writer, editor, and now marketer and coach.
I believe truth and integrity always matter, even if they don’t always win.
I write as if each and every word is the one that will keep Angela out of jail one more day. I believe that matters too.
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