The way we tilt now

What set me off yesterday about the obnoxiously self-righteous was Stephen Hunter’s killing Jane Fonda.

Well, not really. In I, Sniper, the Bob Lee Swagger novel I’m just getting around to, an assassin murders a character named Joan Flanders, a movie star and the daughter and sister of movie stars whose visit to Hanoi as an antiwar activist, successful exercise program, and marriage to an eccentric mogul led me, unaccountably, to identify her with Jane Fonda.*

One of the things in the novel that struck me was this passage about “the narrative”:

The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them. It’s not like they get together every morning and decide ‘These are the lies we tell today.’ ... Rather, it’s a set of casual, nonrigorous assumptions about a reality they’ve never really experienced that’s arranged in such a way as to reinforce their best and most ideal presumptions about themselves and their importance to the system and the way they’ve chosen to live their lives. It’s a way of arranging things a certain way that they all believe in without ever really addressing carefully.

This concept of the narrative is bound up with what people mean when they talk about bias in journalism — though accusations of bias from both the left and right often turn out to be objections to reported facts that people would prefer not to hear. But the bias in the narrative is subtler than mere political slant, which is easy to spot anyhow.

One of the unexamined assumptions in journalism is that we are all middle-class or upper-middle-class college graduates. An undistinguished journalism degree from a mediocre university is all it takes to enter the media elite. What supports this point of view is that advertisers generally want to reach middle-class and upper-middle-class college graduates, so writer, reader, and advertiser are a close fit. But this makes anyone outside the middle class an exotic.

The concept of the narrative also explains how stories get written. Scientists don’t just randomly gather data until a concept falls into place; they form a hypothesis and go out to see if it works. Similarly, journalists usually don’t have all day to wander about soaking up impressions and details to see what shape emerges; they go out with an idea of what the story is likely to be and select details to match the concept. Once the writer (or worse, the assigning editor) has formed a concept of what the story is to be, it can be difficult to shift direction. That’s how you get reporters asking “would-you-say-that” leading questions of sources. And how reporters keep returning to the same set of predictable sources.

Then there are the ways that the narrative becomes the Narrative. Take the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In the early days of the spill, one could see different strains of narrative developing. One was how BP was dealing with the spill, along with whether it had been negligent and culpable. Another was how the Obama administration was dealing with the spill.

It can take a few days for a particular narrative strain to achieve dominance. But because the Washington press corps is perpetually obsessed with the president, any president — Is he up in the polls or down today? Is he victorious or defeated? — it was likely that the Narrative of the oil spill would focus on President Obama. And so it came to pass. That is a legitimate story, but the tendency of the Narrative is to make it the only story.

There is nothing odd about that. Journalists run in packs and imitate other journalists. There is no reason to imagine that journalists as a class are less prone to groupthink than, say, investment bankers. But I, as an editor, am supposed to be skeptical. And you, as a reader, ought to be, for your own protection.

You can follow the Narrative. There is no avoiding it. But you can resist getting caught up in it.



*During my freshman year at Michigan State, Ms. Fonda spoke to several hundred of us dining in Akers Hall one evening. The student who introduced her called her a “chick” and got a quick public lecture on how no one should talk about women that way. Callow youth that I was, I sensed some inner resistance to receiving instruction on how to think, along with curiosity about how appearing in motion pictures makes someone a universal authority.

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