My recent piece on “Technical Hooey from the White House” was really about a “narrative” — the running story that the Bush administration was stupid and the Obama team was just the smartest group ever. A Washington Post story had claimed the Bush White House had been in a “technological Dark Age.” The technical facts were that the Bush administration had been using Windows XP inside a tightly controlled network, while the incoming Obama staffers wanted to use Macs and have access to their Facebook pages from the office. The narrative was something entirely different.
The thing is, once people buy the narrative, it changes how they perceive things, just as in the video example. If a bear moonwalks across the screen and no one sees it, was the bear ever really there?
Control the narrative and Bush really can be both a near imbecile incapable of forming a full sentence and a Machiavellian schemer with magical powers, capable of slanting intelligence presented to the administration before he even took office. It doesn’t need to make sense. The narrative ensures that perception is altered to fit.
Once the narrative of “hope and change” was established, many intelligent people, by tying Obama to their own hopes and fears, became entranced, literally entranced, and so could avoid even perceiving things that didn’t fit their version of the narrative. Atheists saw Obama as being a scientific materialist, Christian progressives and black churchgoers saw him as a good Christian, Wall Streeters saw him as responsibly pro-business, and radical progressives saw him as someone who finally had renounced capitalism as a guiding principle in place of nicely European social democracy.
Of course, a mirror narrative made Obama into an atheistic false Christian, maybe even a closet Muslim, in the pocket of moneyed interests and mysterious foreign financiers, and intent on realizing a people’s republic and making himself, Hugo Chavez-like, president for life.
The fact is, no one involved in media (new or old) or in politics can afford to dismiss the narrative. People trying to form opinions must consider how to shape the narrative. Honesty is good, but it’s not sufficient; Socrates himself couldn’t change the minds of people incapable of hearing his arguments.
More important yet, people consuming media must learn to become conscious of the narrative. People need to learn to ask themselves: “Is this true? How would someone else see it?”
For a long time, journalists — at least some journalists — served that function: they tried to understand, observe, and finally even subvert the narrative that was being presented, and offer another one. In the last 20 years, the dominant media has, instead, made itself a tool for presenting and preserving one particular narrative. Conservative media arose to present a convincing version of an opposing narrative.
A new journalism that tried to subvert the narrative from the start, pointing out the contradictions on both sides, would be a very valuable new journalism indeed.