THE BLOG

Ken Jennings, Icarus, and Miss Puerto Rico: A Theory of Why Our Leadership Sucks

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Bob Harris Author, The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time (Walker/Bloomsbury)

If you were away from the news machine for the last 48 hours, you might have missed the ridiculous Ken Jennings Attacks! thought-virus that spread outward from the New York Post to Fox News to CNN, the AP, and eventually even the North Korea Times. (So it had to be true.)

The story, created by cherry-picking a few outrageous lines from the Jeopardy! champion's generally modest and self-effacing blog, was a simple one: ingrateful winner slams, bashes, blasts, jabs, bites, and even backstabs the show.

Look out! The Stormin' Mormon is loose! It's a miracle Alex survived.

The narrative was simple, memorable, and (to some, apparently) deeply appealing. There was even a reassuring message in it all, made explicit by a Fox News blogger who sermonized:

"This is what happens when people make money too fast."

Wow. An actual moral lesson, right here in our midst. Never mind that anyone with the finger-strength to click over to Ken's actual post can see it was at least intended as humor, regardless of whether you personally find it clever or clumsy or somewhere in between. No, apparently a blog entry (I repeat: a blog entry), clearly dashed off as a half-aimed joke was now a cautionary tale of hubris, a modern retelling of the Icarus myth.

In a saner culture, this would border on the bizarre. Unfortunately, similar variants of the Icarus story, recast with new faces, are now a surprisingly large percentage of what passes for our daily "news." And I'd suggest that this modern pop version of the myth is so eagerly retold (or rather, imposed on existing events) because it provides a set of reassuring emotions, which many of us seem to have decided are much more important than actual facts.

But first, I owe you a disclaimer. I've been on Jeopardy! a few times myself -- thirteen, to be exact -- participating in several major tournaments with enormous prizes. None of which I have ever won. So far, in fact, I have managed not to win a total of over $3.1 million. This is something not a lot of people can say. Or would.

As a happy result, however, many of the game's best players have become good friends over the years, and I've even had a few brief email exchanges with the Utah Computah himself. And while I don't quite presume to call Ken a friend, we've been friendly for maybe a year now, and I've found his emails to be invariably funny, self-deprecating, and kind.

I tell you this not because Ken needs anyone to come to his defense -- he can bring strong men to their knees with his thumb, remember -- but so you can judge for yourself whether the above makes me biased, informed, or whatever. Only fair to you.

I also confess no great expertise in either journalism or mythology. What I know of the latter comes from studying for Jeopardy!, where I did not win $3.1 million. My knowledge of the former comes only from doing left-leaning radio and magazine pieces on and off for maybe ten years. So it's entirely possible I do not know squat. I've certainly been wrong many times in my life. Often on national TV.

But here's what I do see, every day, in newspapers across the country, the same story time after time:

Famous Person You Probably Envy Not Quite So Pimp After All
Feeling Better About Your Own Life Now Easier

Just this random week, you can reel off fresh versions with almost no effort:

Richard Hatch won a million dollars... but he's going to jail. The Tour de France champ... failed a doping test. Miss Puerto Rico was crowned as the most beautiful woman in the cosmos... but the stress made her fall literally to earth. Icarus, Icarus, Icarus.

None of these stories have any bearing on our lives. But we all saw every one of them this week, as if they served some important social function -- which they must, since millions of dollars in ad money and sales depend on people eagerly consuming them -- and yet they're all the same story, with the same simple arc. The details will change, but you'll find ten more tomorrow if you look.

Why?

Occasional stories like this might be rationalized as merely screw-ups by famous people, strange enough to be newsworthy, bound to happen now and again. But the constant drumbeat of daily new Icaruses argues that something much deeper is at work.

We could also suggest this is just what reporters do -- and that their whole focus should be on important hypocrisy. And I'd tend to agree. It's their true highest calling. But why, then, are so few of these stories ever actually important? For every Ken Lay there must be ten Barry Bonds. Speaking truth to power can't really be driving this.

Here's my best guess.

We all know that American culture can sometimes be too obsessed with success, competition, and accomplishment. But given how many mass-advertised riches are simply beyond most of our reach, isn't it also worth realizing that part of our psyche is truly obsessed not with achievement, but with its hoped-to-be-inevitable unraveling from our own human flaws?

We all remember Bill Buckner, but how many of us remember who hit the ball that rolled through his legs, actually winning the damn game?

How many great film performances would it take to change what you first think of when I say the words "Hugh Grant?"

Or, while we're on it, how about "Bill Clinton?" Did you think "Rhodes Scholar" right now? I bet not.

It makes sense that seeing people achieve great heights and then screw up immensely would be deeply appealing. Almost all of us do at least a few bold and great things in our lives -- raise kids, master a skill, even maybe cure a patient or help a loved one through a terrible crisis -- but nearly none of us ever get rich and famous for it. We're born, we bust ass, then we die, most of us without winning the Super Bowl. And yet there's the tube, every damn night, interrupting our cherished televised mental rest breaks after each day full of striving, telling us we can be sexier, faster, and shinier in every way.

In that context, of course the Icarus-ation of any pop icon would be wonderfully reassuring. Don't worry about not being smarter or richer or thinner or funnier, these stories tell us. If you were, you'd still be a drunk or a jerk or an incurable sex fiend. Life would still hurt, at least a little, say these tales. These people are no better than you.

To anyone who is struggling -- which is pretty much everybody -- damn, that's good stuff.

And most reporters are middle-class, too, with exactly the same needs. They're creatures of habit as well. What they expect to see is what they're going to see. A great story, backed by appealing myth, will be hard not to repeat.

So I can't say with certainty there was laziness or even delight in recounting the plainly false tale of Ken's vicious ingratitude. But I would make it a true Daily Double that the power and habit of a reassuring myth was in play. Great metastories help us see things in ways that make sense of the world. Even when they simply aren't there.

Hundreds of thousands of people -- reporters included -- can now suspect that Ken may be smarter and richer and probably younger and thinner and, yes, even happier than they are. But now they can also feel morally superior. Sweet release!

This would certainly explain the weirdly intense rage that was directed at his site's message board in such volume that it finally failed under the load. There's no reason for anger if you just think someone's a jerk -- unless deeper emotions are also involved.

"This is what happens when people make money too fast."

Indeed. Although I don't think the Fox blogger realized that the "this" he was describing included his own work.

Ken will be fine, of course, for at least a few million reasons. The publicity has even goosed his book's pre-orders on Amazon. (And oddly enough, by association, my book's pre-orders, too. So for my own sake, I can only hope a lot of reporters remain this oblivious, at least until both books are released.)

But I also see a big-picture reason to worry. What happened in Ken's case occurs just as often with the most important issues of our time.

(And here, please notice, I, too, proclaim the Attack! of this supposed LDSOB as a microcosm holding a deeper lesson, one whose moral I am about to reveal. Perhaps I'm no less of a pompous freak than Mr. Fox Blogger. Could be.)

A new poll out this week shows that the number of Americans who wrongly believe Iraq had WMDs as of 2003 has increased significantly, as has the percentage of us who (once again) falsely believe Saddam was connected to Al-Qaeda.

Those are great and reassuring things to believe. We get to feel wiser and smarter and more morally sure. But anyone with the strength to lift a mouse-finger can recall that both ideas were long ago discarded.

Comforting fictions are hard to resist, large or small. So in Ken's story -- or rather in the way that it spread -- I find much greater cause for concern.

Am I making a mountain from a molehill here? You bet. But I'd like to think I'm also using the molehill to examine the shabby construction of the mountain beside it. And when popular myths pass for fact -- when myths are actually preferable to fact, even to our journalist watchdogs themselves -- how can any public so well-not-informed possibly make wise decisions?

And when the precise purpose of at least some of our reflexive mythmaking is specifically to destroy those who excel, reveling in their fall, just so the rest of us can feel better about our lives... how can we ever find excellent leaders?

The only way out may be to start paying closer attention not just to what stories we believe... but why.