We have just witnessed one of the most divisive election campaigns in history, one that saw partisans on all sides spinning narratives to best benefit their candidates and positions. It is both amusing and somewhat amazing how two people, viewing the same facts or events, can come up with totally different interpretations, but the following story helps us in understanding more fully.
We thank J.C. Knowles, one of North Carolina’s genuine characters and great raconteurs, for sharing this story in his “North Carolina Minute” blog.
Judy Wallman, a professional genealogy researcher, was investigating her own family tree. She discovered she is related to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, further discovering that they both share ancestry with Reid’s great-great uncle, Remus Reid, a criminal who ended his life on the gallows for horse stealing and train robbery.
The only known picture of Remus Reid shows him on the gallows in Montana territory, with a caption that reads, “Remus Reid, horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889.”
Obviously fascinated by the discovery, Wallman emailed Senator Reid for more information on their ancestor. Reid’s staff sent back their spin on uncle Remus. It reads, “Remus Reid was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisitions of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”
So which was he, a dangerous and despicable criminal, hanged for his thievery, or an upstanding and celebrated entrepreneur and public servant? Both narratives are factually accurate and if you read the latter without further investigation you might be horribly misled. Given the facts we can easily accept that the first narrative was likely the more truthful.
This story bears importance for us because of the avalanche of social and Internet media that comes at us today. Just because something is written or told to us, just because it is delivered in convincing fashion, even if it comes from someone we know and like, it is both possible and likely that any presentation is being spun to the best advantage of the person telling it.
The lesson for us is to be judicious and alert as to how people present narratives of events and facts, understanding that not all we read and hear is all the truth all the time. It remains for us, as discerning citizens, to dig deeper and seek other sources before determining the accuracy and import and interpretation of events. Only then is it possible to better form our opinions and beliefs.
As we always close our television show, NC SPIN, it is up to each of us to “stay informed and watch out for the spin.”
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of NC Spin.