The story line was a classic: Beauty and the Beast. Remember the Atlanta courthouse shootings a few months ago? Brian Nichols was the ogre whose homicidal rampage led him to the apartment of an attractive young woman named Ashley Smith, who soothed his savage breast by speaking gently of God and redemption. That he was black and she was white seemed to deepen the narrative and give it the status of myth.

Oh, did I say myth? I meant meth.

It turns out that Smith did more than read to Nichols from "The Purpose-Driven Life" about God's master plan. She also gave him some of her stash of the illegal drug methamphetamine, or "ice" as she has called it in the publicity campaign for her new book.

Now, on one level, all you can say is good for her. Smith's imperative was to survive, and if what that took was giving Nichols drugs, then that's what she had to do. In those circumstances, I would have offered him the whole medicine cabinet. Everyone would have done the same thing.

But not everyone would have had some crystal meth lying around. The fact that Smith wasn't a fairy princess but a struggling woman who'd lived a hard-knocks life, including a history of drug abuse, doesn't diminish her bravery. But it does change the narrative from Beauty and the Beast to something more like Two Lost Souls.

The whole episode struck me as a good illustration of the dizzying speed with which the story of our times gets written and rewritten in the digital age. It's no wonder that public opinion is so jittery over just about everything, no mystery that Time and Newsweek tell us every few weeks how desperate we are for spiritual connection and some kind of eternal truth. The worldly truth we know keeps changing on us.

I witnessed this warp-speed process in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. I got there five days after the deluge, when the story, as the whole world understood it, was one of "Mad Max" depravity and violence. Hoodlums were raping and pillaging, I just "knew" -- even shooting at rescue helicopters trying to take hospital patients to safety. So it was a surprise when I rolled into the center of the city, with all my foreign-correspondent antennae bristling, and found the place as quiet as a tomb.

The next day I drove into the French Quarter and was struck by how pristine St. Louis Cathedral looked, almost like the castle at Disney World. I got out of the car and walked around the whole area, and I wrote in my notebook that except for the absence of tourists, it could have been just an ordinary Sunday morning in the Big Easy. Then I got back into the car, and on the radio a caller was breathlessly reporting that, as she spoke, a group of policemen were "pinned down" by snipers at the cathedral.

I was right there; nobody was sniping at anybody. But the reigning narrative was Mad Max, not Magic Kingdom. Thanks to radio, television and the Internet, everyone "knew" things that just weren't true.

That was a month ago. Last week the New Orleans story shifted to the other extreme: There weren't but a handful of murders after the flood, about what the city would expect in a normal week; there were no documented cases of rape at the Superdome or the convention center; "hoodlums" in baggy pants helped with rescues instead of hindering them; and most of the "snipers" were stranded people firing in the air to try to attract the attention of helicopters, not chase them away.

I'll bet the truth is more subtle and complicated than either of those extreme versions. It is always so; the path of history is obscured by the weeds of ambiguity. But it used to take a while for the initial version of events to become embedded, and then months or years for historians to come along and dislodge it. Nowadays the 24-7 flood of information gives us the illusion of knowing, then quickly jars us with the revelation that everything we "knew" is wrong.

This isn't a complaint against the media -- what are reporters to do, except tell us what they think they have learned? And it certainly isn't a complaint against information technology, since machines just say and do what they're told.

It's a warning to consumers: You'll sleep better if you remember that the truth is never simple, and that the first story you hear surely won't be the last.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com