Missing the “Rest of the Story”

I’m old enough to remember listening (on radio, not TV) to Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.” For those of you too young to know what I’m talking about, the format was always the same: Harvey would start out–in his deep, resonant voice–by telling a story drawn from history or headlines. There would then be a break for a commercial, following which Harvey would come back with “the rest of the story”–what we might call today the backstory. It almost always cast the introductory narrative in a different light.

What made me think of those broadcasts was one of those “cute” emails that circle endlessly on line. A friend had forwarded it, and it WAS cute. It was in the form of an obituary, and the “deceased” was Common Sense. Most of it was unexceptional, but I found two items irritating, because they displayed how urban myths gain traction: we live in a time and place that has lost any appreciation of nuance or complexity. We no longer hear “the rest of the story.”

Two of the items provided as evidence that common sense is dead were 1) the story about the elderly woman who spilled hot coffee at McDonalds, and 2) the “fact” that prisoners are treated better than their victims.

And now for the rest of those stories.

The coffee spilled at  McDonalds  scalded the elderly woman so badly she had to be hospitalized and undergo skin grafts. She sued ONLY for reimbursement of her medical costs. McDonald’s refused. It turned out that there had been multiple previous cases against McDonalds alleging a practice of serving unreasonably and dangerously hot coffee, but no remedial action was taken. In other words, McDonalds knew their coffee was so hot that it posed a hazard, but ignored the danger. The jury awarded damages in an amount intended compensate the victim AND to send McDonald’s a clear message.

Anyone who thinks that we “coddle” prisoners–treating them better than we treat their victims-should arrange to join SPEA Criminal Justice majors in one of their periodic site visits to jails and prisons. If it is a first visit, students usually return visibly shaken. The glib assertion that prisons are like country clubs is ludicrous; it betrays the ignorance of the speaker.

Ironically, no one seemed to note the inconsistency of these two “examples.”  The McDonald’s verdict is cited for the proposition that “the system” is TOO solicitous of victims. The prisoner example is cited to show we are INSUFFICIENTLY solicitous of victims.

I don’t mean to be too harsh about what is essentially intended as a joke. But as these sorts of stories get embedded in our national mythology, we increasing lose the capacity to recognize that–as an old pol of my acquaintance used to put it–it’s a mighty thin pancake that only has one side. Or as Paul Harvey would say, that there’s usually a “rest of the story.”


  1. I agree on both counts. First, I would recommend the HBO documentary “Hot Coffee” (it details the McDonald’s case, but presents a compelling argument against so-called “tort reform”). I told some people recently that anyone that argues the McDonald’s case as a frivolous lawsuit has obviously only heard media accounts of the case. I think anyone that read trial documents and saw the pictures would agree the jury did the right thing.

    As a SPEA student I concur about prisons as well. I have visited Pendleton, Plainfield, the Indy Work Release center, and now IREF. I wouldn’t call any of them country clubs. When I hear people talking about prisons now, I advise them to schedule a tour.

  2. Sheila – You are so insightful. Thank you for highlighting where the public often adopts contradictory views without realizing it. You are a public service.

    Thank you too for educating your students in such fine fashion. Every layperson who has ever told me of a visit to a prison or jail has the same reaction as your students. Prisons and jails can make the hardiest individuals faint of heart.

    I’m so glad Indianapolis has you.

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