Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Journalists vs. Lit Majors

Jonathan Chait has an insightful and sharply written piece up at New York Magazine called "Obama, ‘Leadership,’ and Magical Thinking." The whole thing is worth reading but this passage in particular jumped out at me because it illustrated a topic I'd been meaning to address.
But many political commentators find this analytic mode as dissatisfying as the quant approach to electoral forecasting. They understand politics largely in narrative terms, and the stories they prefer revolve around the success or failure of a lead character, who is always the president of the United States. If they reach back to history, it won’t be in any systematic way, but to tell stories of president Reagan drinking cocktails with Tip O’Neill, or Lyndon Johnson looming over a hapless member in a threatening fashion.
We talk a lot about journalists and narrative but we don't mean narrative of the Twentieth Century sense of The Sound and the Fury or Rashomon. For the past hundred and twenty years or so, the vast majority of serious narrative art has been multidimensional and open-ended. There is often no objective truth. New information often only adds to the ambiguity. By the second half of the Twentieth Century, this type of narrative had also become common (prevalent?) in popular culture where characters like Lew Archer, George Smiley, Matthew Scudder, and even comic book superheroes faced ambiguous, morally and ethically murky landscapes that owed more to Joseph Conrad than to the Strand Magazine.

When we talk about narrative in connection with today's journalists, we're generally using the term in a much older sense associated with a Trollope novel or a well-made play. Events follow a nice, clean causal chain. Moral issues are unambiguous and usually fairly obvious. Characters tend to be simple and fairly static except for some well-defined arcs and the occasional epiphany. All of which adds up to a final, objective truth.

Human beings think in terms of narrative. It's how we're wired and it's served us pretty well so far. The trouble is the narratives that dominate journalism today are excessively simplistic and journalists have an increasing tendency to converge mindlessly on whichever one seems to be the consensus opinion and to cling to it no matter how much evidence builds up against it.

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