The Plot Thickens

As regular viewers of News Watch know, we are always bandying about the issue of media bias with conservatives insisting there is a liberal slant and liberals insisting there is a conservative slant. But there may be another bias in the media that is far more powerful and that afflicts both right-wing and left-wing journalists equally. That is the seemingly irresistible impulse to turn events, policy decisions, elections, deliberations and virtually everything else in the public sphere into stories.

There is a long-standing convention in journalism to speak about "stories." Reporters work on "stories," they file "stories," they report "stories." Most of us take this at face value, regarding the word as interchangeable with the job of a journalist, and this isn't entirely misguided. Surely storytelling is a large part of what journalists do. They take whatever it is they are covering and attempt to provide a cause-and-effect relationship, a context, an entry point for their readers and viewers. In this way they try to make sense of events and facts.

But storytelling, even when it isn't in the service of a particular political point of view, can itself be distorting because converting events into plots often (usually) means reducing them, simplifying them, restructuring them in ways that might be accessible and even entertaining but that are not necessarily accurate. When everything is reduced to a story, the first casualty is any complexity that might not fit neatly into the narrative structure.

The 2000 election provides a perfect example. Most of us realize that election coverage is now really one giant plot. The plot of the last presidential election was that the Republicans had nominated an ignoramus and the Democrats had nominated a liar. The election was played out in the media as to whether the American people would choose ignorance over mendacity or vice versa. Put aside for the moment the fact that this allowed the press to ignore policy entirely so that they didn't have to subject the candidates' positions to any scrutiny whatsoever. More important, they used this narrative framework to cram events to fit. Every pronouncement of Gore's was examined (and often distorted) to see if he was bending the truth, while every pronouncement of Bush's was examined (and often distorted) to see if he was displaying idiocy. Any facts that didn't fit the narrative - for example, that Bush had had his driver's license number changed, presumably to prevent the press from tracking down his DUI arrest years earlier - simply weren't reported.

Similarly, the recent debate and passage of the Homeland Security Department was turned into a story in which President Bush was fighting Democrats, over whom he eventually triumphed. What was lost in this version was that the Homeland Security measure originated with Democrats and that President Bush had originally opposed the idea. What was also lost was the substance of the dispute over the President's demand to have complete control over hiring and firing, thus suspending the labor rights of the employees of the new department. I doubt there were more than a handful of ordinary American voters who really understood what the dispute was about, not because they are stupid but because the substantive issues disappeared in the "story" about Bush and his opponents. This wasn't about policy. This was about legislative victory.

These are things to remember when we read the news. The media love conflict, which is one of the staples of a good story, so much that they will do almost anything to get it, even or especially if it means jettisoning those messy and complicated elements that might spoil the tale.