Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Letting the story obscure the facts

One of the several discussion groups I prowl has a lively debate over the intensive fact checking by the Associated Press on Sarah Palin's new book. Many of the more conservative posters seem to see this as yet another example of the media's clear Left Wing Bias.

It seems to me that there IS a clear bias in the media, but it is not particularly partisan. Instead, it is content related - the media is always biased toward a good story. And there is a little-understood dynamic in the press, particularly the national press corps, known as the "Meta-narrative." That is when a person or issue gets caught in some larger story, wherein every incremental development or any individual news piece becomes emblematic of some larger truth (whether that truth is strictly speaking true or not). For example, the notion that George H.W. Bush was out so out of touch that he didn't know what a grocery scanner was. Not true at all - it was a distortion of a rather geeky "Gee Whiz" comment he made once when trying to make small talk with a store clerk on a mishandled press event - but it became a dominant theme of the 1992 election.

Or that Al Gore exaggerated so much that he even claimed to have invented the Internet or have discovered Love Canal. Again, not true - an exaggeration of some ill-advised (but not entirely untrue) boasts he made at various events. But that becomes the overriding theme of the 2000 campaign. And George W. was struggling against his own meta-narrative that he was a dim bulb. Not true, of course, and based on the fact that he tends to mangle his words, particularly when he is fatigued (on the campaign trail he got worse as the day wore on to the point where his evening events were nearly unintelligible in parts).

Palin stumbled into the "serial liar" and "shallow" bits through the horrendous Katie Couric interviews and now she is stuck in her own awful meta-narrative. Every tiny blip becomes emblematic of the larger story that she is a clueless hick, a deer caught in the headlights. The closest analogy I can think of is the Gore campaign - by the end, reporters were fact-checking virtually every word he breathed, so we got idiotic story cycles about things like how much his mother REALLY spent on prescriptions for her dog. Had he published a book during the 2000 campaign, I have little doubt that it would have received a similarly thorough scrubbing as Palin's book, and every little irregularity would have been more fodder for the Serial Exaggerator label.

It is very difficult to break that kind of meta-narrative, as George W. can testify. Or Bill Clinton, who still gets smirking coverage from some publications any time he is within sneezing distance of a pretty woman. Or Ted Kennedy, who was portrayed as a womanizing drunk almost to the end of his days, although he had changed his ways years before. Gore is an interesting case, however. He managed to seize control of the story by dropping out of sight for a couple of years, changing his appearance (remember the beard? I doubt that was an accident, and if it was, it was a fortuitous one), and then reinventing himself as an environmental crusader. Whatever the weaknesses of his books and movies, he has created his own meta-narrative as a visionary environmentalist. It is one of the cleverest bits of media reinvention I have ever seen. There is a book in there somewhere for some enterprising media critic.

So I think criticisms of the media based purely on partisan politics largely miss the point of what's actually going on. It's indisputable that media organizations tend to skew left of center, but not even remotely as far as some conservatives would suggest. And reporters and editors will merrily abandon any shred of partisan bias for a crack at a good story, as the Gore campaign in 2000 shows. If partisanship were the dominant factor in the mainstream media, then Gore should have been the critical darling of the media in 2000, as he is today. But he wasn't at the time - the coverage he received was punishing and largely hostile.

Whether Palin can break her own meta-narrative - or whether she even wants to - will be an interesting thing to watch.


dogimo said...

The remedy you suggest is itself biased - along gender, not partisan, lines. There's no way Palin can solve her problems by growing a beard.

It seems, though, that the media itself is caught in its own meta-narrative, which you rightfully capitalize: the narrative of Left Wing Bias.

The most insidious thing about a meta-narrative is that once it gets rolling, any shred or tidbit that seems to support the 'story' is picked up and carried around, but anything that would tend to undercut it is 'not particularly newsworthy.' Ignoring the fact that the supporting snippets, taken on their own, aren't particularly newsworthy! They only get picked up for how they tie into the existing, ongoing serial.

Excellent analysis, Sean. I was going to say "as usual" but - this is a high cut above your usual high standard! Perhaps you may be the "enterprising media critic" you cite.

dogimo said...

Separate comment:

>Or Bill Clinton, who still gets smirking coverage from some publications any time he is within sneezing distance of a pretty woman.

This really is shameful, by the way. There is zero evidence on record that Bill Clinton has ever been into pretty women.

Sean Scully said...

"It seems, though, that the media itself is caught in its own meta-narrative, which you rightfully capitalize: the narrative of Left Wing Bias."

Ah, you have taken the analysis to the next logical conclusion, and you are correct. Very well done.

Can there be a meta-meta-narrative?

dogimo said...

>Can there be a meta-meta-narrative?

We're safe there - it would only appear in postmodern journals.

Sean Scully said...

Someday there will only be self analysis of ourselves. At that point we will all vanish into our own navels.