Monday, October 12, 2009

Narratives Matter

I had been meaning to do a post on Glenn Beck after I finally sat down and watched a full hour of his show, but now that I'm a week behind schedule, I figured Beck would fit quite nicely into a discussion on liberal versus conservative journalism.

I've heard Beck before, in bits and pieces, but I'd never experienced the full range of his incoherence before sitting down to watch his show. That's not to say he's not right on some very important issues and that's not to say he doesn't make good use of libertarian lexicon, but context matters and the stories we tell matter.

Beck started the hour I was watching it with a blackboard lecture on the "war on the dollar." From what I gather this was about inflation and the declining value of the dollar worldwide, but there was so much hyperbole and unnamed boogeymen that I couldn't quite make out the point. Beck loves to use the word "they," as in "they are responsible for this crisis" and "they don't care about ordinary Americans," but he never really got into who "they" actually are. At times I thought he may have been referring to Obama, while at other times, I'm not sure he really meant anyone.

Beck moved on from the war on the dollar to discuss a story about a small town in Montana that (if I'm remembering this correctly) spent stimulus dollars on having a private police company build a large prison and come in and set up shop. I couldn't tell you the specifics because I couldn't make them out from Beck's interview with the local news personality covering the story. What I did get was shadowy hints about this sinister company and the questionable background of it's CEO and lots of questions about how the prison was built and whether or not members of this private police force were patrolling the streets of this small Montana town. There were some shreds of real reporting and some seemingly relevant issues for a national forum, but the presentation was such that I couldn't make out what the hell was going on.

This is why narratives matter. Glenn Beck may be full of truths and small government lexicon, but as an intelligent person, I don't think I'm getting much from listening to him. Reason's Jesse Walker comments on the Glenn Greenwald piece relating to Beck which I linked to a few weeks ago, here.

And to come at this issue of narratives from another perspective, here's Reason's Matt Welch, posting last week on the question of whether or not there are any good conservative journalists. But before addressing the narrative issue, let's just delve a bit into this issue of political bias in the media. The right always tells us that the mainstream media has a liberal bias, while from the far left you tend to hear about the important progressive issues which are ignored by the mainstream media and there's some truth on both ends, as the biases of the mainstream media have little or nothing to do with traditional left-right politics. The mainstream media and traditional journalism in general is problematic not because of these biases, but because of the narratives they promote. Three examples:

1) In the months leading up to the Iraq War, the media accepted the statements of the Bush administration without criticism and in the early months of the war, essentially played the role of cheerleader.

2) During the 2008 election, the mainstream media seemed to not-so-subtlety favor Barack Obama.

3) The real meat of my argument, that the mainstream media tends to approach any social/economic issue from a statist, big government perspective.

The first two examples are rather time specific, while the third one has been true of the last 30 or 40 years of journalism, but my point is the same: Politics don't matter as much as the stories were presented with and an understanding of where those stories actually come from. There are such things as facts and truth, but any good journalist worth his salt works at actually telling a story and any story worth reading has to have some point of view off of which it's based. Even the simple decision that something is newsworthy is a value judgment. Quite simply, I think the concept of the unbiased journalist is pure bunk and came about as more of a business decision to appeal across party lines by not taking part in the partisan politics that date back to the founding of the nation.

The real crime of this notion of an unbiased press is the way in which various narratives become the gospel truth. With Iraq, the story was as I mentioned it above, with nary a critical word to say about the justification for war and no real journalism in regards to the truth of that justification. When the weapons of mass destruction justification was shown to be wrong, the media switched gears into Vietnam mode, declaring Iraq a quagmire only a few years after the invasion began. The problem on both ends was the lack of dissenting voices in he mainstream media as to whether or not the prevailing narrative was actually true.

Then there was the Obama election, but contrary to what plenty of conservatives believed, the media's support of Obama wasn't really about politics or ideology, but about the story. Barack Obama, the historic election of the first black president, was the story the media ran with and and the cult of hope and change surrounding Obama only increased the furor of their enthusiasm.

And finally, there's the meat of my argument, which is the manner in which every reporter on the planet not named John Stossel approaches social and economic issues. The general thrust of the narrative we typically get is that X is a problem and we need government action in order to address X. Most people are familiar with the manner in which the media hypes and exaggerates every perceived crisis, but the simple fact is that the result of crises mongering is usually a call for someone- usually the government- to do something. Stossel- who simply turned the techniques he used as a consumer reporter to look into big government is considered by many to be an outsider in the field of journalism if not a downright fraud, all because he's questioned the traditional narrative.

Stossel is a good reporter because he's honest and because he dares to question the standard narrative. I've commented recently on Ezra Klein and Glenn Greenwald, two liberals who's blogging I enjoy and respect because of their honest approach. The mainstream media tends to suck ass, not because of the narratives they use (which are generally more coherent than Mr. Glenn Beck) but because they refuse to admit that alternative narratives may have validity. We live in a society that tends to focus on the output, but the input is just as important if not more so. Hopefully as the traditional newspaper models die off we'll get more John Stossel's of multiple political persuasions and the model for the future won't be the rantings of Glenn Beck.


Anonymous rhofulster said...

"The general thrust of the narrative we typically get is that X is a problem and we need government action in order to address X"

In the late nineties, I went for a two year stretch without cable. I read Reason faithfully (if I remember correctly H&R was up and running) and I regularly sampled National Review, The Nation, Mother Jones, New Republic and a few others. This was also a period of time when my libertarian philosophy firmed (hopefully didn't harden.) When we got our cable back, watching CNN was jarring. Every damn story - "What does the government have to say about this? What is the government doing about this?"

10:35 PM  

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