Ed Driscoll

The MSM and The Narrative Style

Ace uses a recent essay by Fred Thompson in National Review Online on how the MSM’s Official Narrative of his candidacy helped to drive several nails into it, as a jumping off point for “why the media so heavily depends on The Narrative — 90% of the time, their reportage is weak and incomplete. It is riddled through with missing details and unknown motivations.” The narrative that the MSM constructs allows them to paper over these gaps:

I can predict what a liberal will say on any issue. I will not only guess his position, I will accurately guess his reasoning. The latter, most of the time, anyway: I will either guess his primary reason, or his secondary reason, or a reason he’s actually contrarian on (and thus departs from the liberal mainstream) but which he will at least recognize as a legitimate reason offered by may other liberals.

He won’t be able to do that with me. He doesn’t know and doesn’t care to find out.

But if called upon to supply an explanation, he’ll guess.

And he’ll resort to The Narrative. Devoid of facts or accurate guesses based on close questioning on other matters, he’ll take his best guess at a logical Narrative about my beliefs and motivations.

And what will his guess be? Well, since he never bothered to ask, and never bothered to read a conservative writing his beliefs out, and since, even when he ambushes a conservative (as Martin Bashir did yesterday with Andrew Breitbart) he doesn’t actually bother listening to the answers but instead simply follows up with a re-worded restatement of the accusation, he’ll resort to the very easy, very natural, very simple Narrative that explains it all.

He’ll choose from the following list:

1) Because they’re stupid

2) Because they’re uneducated

3) Because they’re superstitious and credulous and think that God told them to believe this

4) Because they have weak minds and Rush Limbaugh told them to think this

and, of course, for those who aren’t clearly in the above categories:

5) Because they’re racists and they hate

6) Because they literally — as the Simpsons’ parody went — because they very literally “Want What’s Worse For Everybody,” i.e., they are not only villains, but self-aware villains of deliberate and knowing choice, villains because they’ve decided to Choose Villainy

Sometimes, the media actually has better answers than that — they could at least offer up “because of the Constitution, or something?” — but they find repeating our beliefs so hateful and so beyond credibility they refuse to.

Our black lies cannot pass their fair lips. Even in the few cases where they could accurately describe our reasoning and beliefs, they won’t, because our reasoning and beliefs are so disgusting and transparently dishonest they cannot abide propagating them.

And thus The Narrative. Where facts are either missing, or unknown, or too hateful to actually be repeated in polite company, the Narrative fills in any and all blanks.

It’s all worse now, of course, because the most unbelievable thing has happened to liberals. Ten times more mystifying than Fred Thompson’s failure to catch fire is conservatives’ failure to worship Barack Obama.

If I was mystified by Fred Thompson’s failure to charm conservatives, liberals are stunned and apoplectic over Barack Obama’s failure to charm conservatives.

They don’t get it. Their imagination fails. How can such a clean, articulate (and I’m not kidding) genius be rejected by so many, beautiful in form, in voice, in mind, and spirit?

How can someone who quite literally is alike a Second Christ be rejected?

They can’t explain it. Not just to the public, but to themselves. I sometimes wonder, slightly, why Fred Thompson didn’t win; but they — they! — are almost dazed by distraction over the central mystery: “How can the world reject a God?”

Since this is so inexplicable to them, so beyond their experience and even beyond their capacity to imagine, the normal power of the Narrative is increased by a full order of magnitude.

How could so many fail to be “enchanted” (remember that word?) by Obama? Well, let’s see: Fear, ignorance, lack of education, God told them not to be, Limbaugh told them not be, and, of course, hate and racism.

How could so many turn their backs on this wonderful man’s determination to bring to the country the Democratic dream of ObamaCare? Well, obviously, ignorance, fear, lack of education, Gold told them it was bad, Limbaugh said it was bad, that stupid Wasilla Witch said the magic words “death panels,” and, of course, hatred of minorities and/or the poor.

Now, by the way, on that point, the liberal media loves discussing how the Ryan plan will probably alienate many older voters who are hellbent to that their FDR-era bureaucracy of health delivery not be modified in any way.

At this point, it’s worth flashing back to January of this year, when the left’s War On Clip Art was in full swing the immediate wake of Gabrielle Giffords’ terrifying shooting, and the New York Times deemed itself obligated to “Steer the Coverage” (read, the Narrative) against conservatives.

As Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal noted in the thick of that flare-up of the culture war, there’s an almost 50 year underpinning to the media’s narrative assumptions that Ace describes above:

The stakes for the American left in 2012 couldn’t possibly be higher. If then, and again in 2014, progressives can’t pull toward their candidates some percentage of the independent voters who in November abandoned the Democratic Party, they could be looking in from the outside for as many years as some of them have left to write about politics. A wilderness is a terrible place to be.

Against that grim result, every sentence Messrs. Krugman, Packer, Alter, the Times and the rest have written about Tucson is logical and understandable. What happened in November has to be stopped, by whatever means become available. Available this week was a chance to make some independents wonder if the tea parties, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Jared Loughner are all part of the same dark force.

Who believes this? They do.

The divide between this strain of the American left and its conservative opponents is about more than politics and policy. It goes back a long way, it is deep, and it will never be bridged. It is cultural, and it explains more than anything the “intensity” that exists now between these two competing camps. (The independent laments: “Can’t we all just get along?” Answer: No.)

The Rosetta Stone that explains this tribal divide is Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter’s piece for Harper’s may be unfamiliar to many now, but each writer at the opening of this column knows by rote what Hofstadter’s essay taught generations of young, left-wing intellectuals about conservatism and the right.

After Hofstadter, the American right wasn’t just wrong on policy. Its people were psychologically dangerous and undeserving of holding authority for any public purpose. By this mental geography, the John Birch Society and the tea party are cut from the same backwoods cloth.

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Hofstadter wrote. “In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

Frank Rich, Oct 17: “Don’t expect the extremism and violence in our politics to subside magically after Election Day—no matter what the results. If Tea Party candidates triumph, they’ll be emboldened. If they lose, the anger and bitterness will grow.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Tuesday in the Huffington Post: “Jack’s death forced a national bout of self-examination. In 1964, Americans repudiated the forces of right-wing hatred and violence with an historic landslide in the presidential election between LBJ and Goldwater. For a while, the advocates of right-wing extremism receded from the public forum. Now they have returned with a vengeance—to the broadcast media and to prominent positions in the political landscape.”

This isn’t just political calculation. It is foundational belief.

And those foundational beliefs help to underpin not just the narrative, but other reasoning by the left as well. As Charles Krauthammer famously said almost a decade ago, “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.”

And the Professor noted right around that time:

As the old saying has it, the left looks for heretics and the right looks for converts, and both find what they’re looking for. The effect is no doubt subliminal, but people who treat you like crap are, over time, less persuasive than people who don’t. If people on the Left are so unhappy about how many former allies are changing their views, perhaps they should examine how those allies are treated.

But the Paranoid Style that Hofstadter infused upon the left is almost half a century old, and written in a very different America from today. In the 21st century, is there any hope of dynamiting (no, not in a literal sense Mr. Krugman) its assumptions and the Narrative it fuels?