Thursday, November 19, 2009


I got a number of interesting responses to my post of yesterday about meta-narratives.

The most interesting comes from Geode, AKA Joe, who brilliantly raised the argument to the next logical level:

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."

And of course, he is correct, both about the mechanics of the phenomenon and the particulars about the "mainstream media." The entire argument that there is a Left Wing Bias in the media is a meta-narrative in itself, and not one confined entirely to conservatives. Every blip, every inconsistency, and every human failing on the part of journalists is now examined at length and held up as proof that there is in fact such a bias, despite the fact that decisions in journalism rarely get made is such an organized fashion.

This points to an interesting aspect of the phenomenon, which is that meta-narratives, at least the ones that last, are not based on nothing, which is to say that they are not entirely fantasy. In every case I cited yesterday, there is at least a kernel of truth, or something that the victim of the meta-narrative did to provoke the story. Al Gore really did have a bad habit of making statements that sounded self-absorbed and boastful; George W. Bush really is incurious and sometimes says or things that make him appear shallow or ignorant; Sarah Palin really has made some statements that are jaw-droppingly vapid; Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy really did have unhealthy tastes for skirt-chasing, and in Teddy's case at least, alcohol.

And of course, the media really does have an occasional leftward bias for a lot of complicated reasons.

But in every case, the kernel of truth gets inflated and exaggerated to the point where it clings to reality by only the most tenuous thread. Unrelated stories about the person become colored inappropriately by that one aspect of his or her personality or past.

Why is this? In part, I think, it is a form of group-think. If someone is saying something that seems to run counter to the collective wisdom, it is usually easier to conclude that the one is wrong while the majority is right rather than the other way around. It is not an unreasonable presumption, but is also not always right - and it is sometimes dangerously wrong.

Another part, which is probably easy for outsiders to miss, is a technical aspect of journalism, and that is the need to frame a story, to add context and perspective. A story that only says who, what, when, and where is dull. The clincher to the story is usually "why." And, unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to fall back on an easy shorthand - Gore exaggerates, Clinton is a cad, Palin is a lightweight, Kennedy is a drunk - than dig deeper and look for the actual why. Sometimes the actual why is simply less interesting than the stereotype.

So what do we do about it? I am afraid that much of it is embedded in human nature, so it would be difficult to stamp out, particularly in highly competitive stories where lots of news organizations are focusing on a single person or issue. A few pitifully news organizations, particularly McClatchy, have a good record of resisting the herd's take on a big story (McClatchy's coverage in the run up to the Iraq war was superb). Underdog papers in the shadow of bigger competitors, like The Washington Times (where I worked for five years), do it sometimes since they are trying to define themselves in opposition to a larger paper that may be following the current meta-narrative, but that can be hit-or-miss. And certain individual reporters, such as Peter Baker of the New York Times and, formerly, the Washington Post and the Washington Times, seem to have a good instinct for spying the real story behind the clutter. Unfortunately, however, I am not sure how to institutionalize it across the media.

But as readers, there is always something we can do about it, and the answer is not revolutionary: question the common wisdom and, dare I say it, don't believe everything you read.


dogimo said...

Good stuff. You've always had it in you to be a pundit.

"Pundit" - from the French "pun dit" - one who speaks in puns.

Sean Scully said...

You shoulda seen me the one time I was on C-Span's Washington Journal. I pundited the crap out the day's news. Of course, I cannot remember a single thing I said that day, but I have a cool coffee mug to commemorate the event.