The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, February 23, 2004

News and the narrative arc: the boys can't help it

Everyone loves a good story.

It's true (probably) since language began. It's what makes billions for Hollywood and lesser amounts for Random House. And it's a killer for journalistic credibility.

Hacks even use the word story. My understanding is that they mean by it not any specific piece, but a schema which comes to be accepted as accounting for a particular set of facts.

And, in everyday life, a manager comes down to a plant to investigate a hold-up in production; he'll ask, What's the story? And the supervisor will give him a tale with a beginning, middle and end. Edited to protect his own ass and give narrative satisfaction. (A misunderstanding with suppliers is always good.)

You might say, Everyone tells 'em: what's the harm?

Take a look at a piece in today's Harvard Crimson by one J Hale Russell (via Romenesko) which examines the media treatment of the rise and fall of Howard Dean. (That rise and fall just slipped into the consciousness like a hot knife through butter.)

And that's his point. It's not a new one - Deaniacs were bellyaching about the skewed nature of his coverage - the anger, the wife, the scream [1] - for a good long while before he threw in the towel. But it's a 1,500 word piece, and worth it for the references [2].

The fact is that the top editors in news decree that a certain amount of airtime and column inches are to be devoted to the campaign each day. Armies of hacks and helpers are despatched, budgets go through the roof. This Rapid Reaction Force had better damned well react rapidly, and repay the investment made.

Self-fulfilling prophesy: which is not to say that hacks necessarily make up things cold. But the available facts are processed and moulded by the minds of folks who have deadlines, and need product.

And the most attractive sort of mouldings are stories. Archetypes, stereotypes, stock plots are swirling around the hacks' heads: generations brought up on TV know the importance of the narrative arc: the template which packages mediocre acting, plodding direction and hackneyed story ideas into a 40 minute hour of TV that will at least keep folks in their seats between ad breaks.

And facts that don't fit the arc get junked or ignored or downplayed or reinterpreted.

(The notion of objective journalism yet again shown to be a self-righteous sham.)

The narrative is the Primrose Path of journalism. The grotesque arc imposed on Dean - outsider to front-runner to kook to failure - was not devised by conspiracy or with premeditation. (Or, at least, I don't see that the Deaniacs have made out a case for that.) It was just too easy to interpret the facts in that way. The pack mentality of the press - a rather different thing than a conspiracy: the opposite of premeditation, in fact - acted as invisible whips: Lyndon Johnson-style strong-arm stuff being neither possible nor necessary.

To go down to posterity as the poster-boy for media manipulation is not exactly up with being President of the United States. But, as a consolation for Howard as he snuggles with Judy on the couch watching the results in November, it'll be something.

  1. Repeated 633 times in a particular period, according to AP, according to the piece. With, the piece says, Diane Sawyer, who was such a bitch to Judy Dean during the twosome interview as to deserve some anger from the candidate (tipping a glass of water over her head would probably have been a proportionate response), being the one to find out that the scream was an artefact of the recording set-up.

  2. No damned links, of course. Bastards!

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