The Media Narrative

Any thought that is passed on to the subconscious often enough and convincingly enough is finally accepted.
– Robert Collier

The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.
– Joseph Pulitzer

Learning of Mexican War

Narratives are powerful devices through which complex ideas can be simplified and passed on to others. Wrapping a compelling story around an important message can breathe indelible life into what many might otherwise find a mindless platitude. For example, instead of repeating the phrase “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” ad nauseum, we tell the story of “The Lion and Mouse.” Obviously, this is an ancient, time-honored tradition of teaching, one that even Jesus employed through the use of parables.

Where narratives are less useful, in that they tend to obscure the truth rather than illuminate it, is in the business of conveying facts. I would call that business “news reporting” but that seems to be a particularly dead art. News reporting today consists almost entirely of developing a story line and then conveying facts (or rumors) that fit the story line to the exclusion of all else. When relaying nebulous ideas, narratives can provide a structure in which to comprehend those ideas. When relaying facts, however, and especially when doing so in a selective manner, narratives provide a framework for argument rather than explanation. The result, of course, is that people remember the narrative first and foremost, while the facts are recalled only insomuch as they fit the framework through which the story is told. Once the narrative is set, you see, there can be no deviation, or else the whole story falls apart.

The general framework for today’s media primarily revolves around telling stories of conflict. Nearly every news article is about one side versus another. A typical piece will start off describing the “victim” as an innocent who is suffering at the hands of the antagonist. The antagonist is then portrayed as unfeeling, uncaring, greedy and/or dangerously incompetent. The narrative sets the framework into which the facts will now be set.*

Reporting on the war in Iraq is a bit more difficult using this formula, since the antagonist is the United States. Why isn’t al Qaeda the antagonist? Because it doesn’t fit with the narrative in which unpopular/Republican presidents only start wars for selfish reasons. Identifying the real enemy as bin Laden and his fellow travelers obscures the story being told. So instead, the narrative framework chosen for these stories is one of anti-Bush vs. pro-Bush. In this way, even when someone such Ayman al Zawahri makes a statement directed against all of America, the reporting frames it in a way that pits the al Qaeda leader against the policies of Pres. Bush and those who support him. Those who buy the narrative, and indeed actively support it, take it and run with it almost unthinkingly:

Yesterday, a new videotape from al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri was released, in which he expresses opposition to the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and says he wants 200,000-300,000 U.S. troops killed before the America pulls out.

Zawahiri says Congress’ proposed Iraq timetable is evidence of American “failure and frustration,” but adds, “This bill will deprive us of the opportunity to destroy the American forces which we have caught in a historic trap.”

This morning on Fox News, host Chris Wallace attempted to spin the Zawahiri tape. He repeatedly said Zawahiri “says the Democrats’ troop pull-out bill is proof of a U.S. defeat,” never once mentioning the fact that Zawahiri also advocated Bush’s strategy of staying the course in Iraq … As John Aravosis at AmericaBlog writes, “He wants the US to remain in a quagmire where our troops are killed and killed and killed, i.e., he likes the [Bush] plan for Iraq.”

Without the proper framework in place, one may get the impression that the anti-Bush forces are arguing for the same policies as those of our sworn enemies. That just won’t do. It would cause the narrative to crumble. No longer would the story be “anti-bush majority, and innocent civilians (interchange with infantilized troops) suffering at the hands of failed policies of evil Bush and his neocon cohorts, which cause al Qaeda/radical Islamists to attack us.” Instead, there would be no anti-Bush vs. pro-Bush framework, but one of anti-American/West vs. radical Islam/al Qaeda. Within that framework, at least some of the Bush policies vis-à-vis Iraq may seem to make sense, and may even be entirely justified. Indeed, if the facts (and by that I mean ALL the facts) were presented in all their naked glory, people might decide that denying the terrorists any sort of victory in Iraq is not only the right thing to do, but that doing so is very much in our best interests as a nation.

But that cannot be allowed to happen because, apparently, the Gang of 500 has already decided for us: war is bad, and the Iraq war is the worst. Accordingly, the narrative continues unabated.

Consider, for example, the latest news on Congressional attempts to micromanage the war featuring “prominent Republicans” splitting from the President’s plan of action (remember “anti-Bush vs. pro-Bush”). Pete Domenici (R-NM) is the most recent “defector” who apparently caved after meeting with some families directly of soldiers in theater. Here’s how the New York Times framed the story:

Support among Republicans for President Bush’s Iraq policy eroded further on Thursday as another senior lawmaker, Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, broke with the White House just as Congressional Democrats prepared to renew their challenge to the war.

“We cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making measurable progress,” said Mr. Domenici, a six-term senator who has been a steadfast supporter of the president.

Thus Mr. Domenici joined a growing number of Republican voices in opposition to the war just as Senate Democratic leaders are readying plans to put the political and policy focus back on Iraq next week.

The AP follows suit:

In another setback to President Bush’s increasingly unpopular war strategy, GOP stalwart Sen. Pete Domenici said he wants to see an end to combat operations and U.S. troops heading home from Iraq by spring.

The longtime New Mexico senator is the latest of several party loyalists and former war supporters to abandon Bush on Iraq in the past 10 days. They have urged a change sooner rather than later and further isolated the GOP president in his attempt to defend the unpopular war.

Last week, Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the U.S. should significantly reduce its military presence in Iraq while bolstering diplomatic efforts. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., this month is expected to propose a new approach.

Left unsaid in most reports is the fact that anti-war groups have been actively lobbying Domenici, claiming that they will camp outside his Albuquerque offices all Summer until he submits to their will [ed. note: What will they do for the rest of the Summer now?].

Also left unmentioned in any single story that I’ve been able to find is Domenici’s role in the Attorney-Gate affair, specifically with respect to the firing of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. Why is that I wonder?

It would seem to me that Domenici’s ill-timed (if not illegal) phone calls to Iglesias in the waning days of an election merit at least a mention, especially considering the intense pressure on the White House resulting from the ensuing scandal. Rather than painting Domenici as a man of conscience who has finally seen the error of his ways and joined the “correct” side of the debate, why doesn’t the media at least provide a hint as to why Domenici may be shifting gears at this time? Isn’t it at least possible that the good senator’s decision to “part ways with the President,” as the media accounts have universally portrayed it, is influenced by his apparent misdeeds in l’affaire Igelsias? Could it be that the investigation into Domenici’s phone calls and the purposes behind them is being used by the Democratic leaders in Congress to elicit an affirmative vote from him on the next bill that seeks to wrest control of the war from the hands of the President?

“Beginning with the defense authorization bill next week, Republicans will have the opportunity to not just say the right things on Iraq, but vote the right way, too,” Mr. Reid said, “so that we can bring the responsible end to this war that the American people demand and deserve.”

Is there any doubt that if Domenici were moving to a position that is decidedly pro-Bush, every mention of his name in the papers would be accompanied by “DOJ scandal” and “Iglesias”? Kind of like how in the run-up to the 2006 mid-terms, no Republican candidate could be mentioned without also raising the all-purpose specter of Jack Abramoff. But because he is taking up the standard of the anti-Bush side of the story, he is treated like the prodigal son whose past transgressions are all forgiven. Heck, they’re not even mentioned! Why spoil a “road to Damascus” story with irrelevant trivialities.

The sad fact is that Domenici’s involvement in Attorney-Gate cannot be mentioned because it doesn’t fit with the narrative. Raising Iglesias may suggest that there is another story here that has nothing to do with being for or against Bush. So long as the senator takes the media-friendly position of anti-Bush, he will be called a prominent Republican and held up as a hero for the cause. If he should waiver, however, and perhaps vote against the upcoming appropriations bill, or doing anything that might water it down, then expect the Iglesias arrow to be pulled from the media’s quiver.

Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.
– Joseph Pulitzer

Unfortunately, this is probably the wisest thing Pulitzer ever said. The media holds an incredible power to shape American views of the everyday world, one that it does not use wisely or judiciously. Instead, reporters, editors and publishers seem to consider themselves as acting in loco parentis for the rest of us, deciding what we should know, when we should know it, and how we should intepret it all. The narrative they’ve developed through which to do all of these things distorts and mischaracterizes the world, to the detriment of us all.

A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will in time produce a people as base as itself.
– Joseph Pulitzer

Given all of the above, is it any wonder that elections are decided 50/50, and that every issue debated is pro vs. anti? We’ve ceased being Americans in the eyes of the media. Instead we are merely forces in conflict, victims and oppressors, rich and poor, for and against. So many of us have bought into this media narrative that at times we can’t see who our real enemies are, and instead imagine all the ills of the world to be the fault of our political opponents. Would that terrorism could be stopped by simply pulling the lever on a voting machine. If only it were truly that easy. What too many fail to understand is that terrorists are coming no matter what we do. The only way to stop them is to fight them, and the only way to fight them is to deny them any and all opportunities to implant themselves in a society where they can fester and poison others.

But that doesn’t fit the narrative, now does it.

* An interesting side effect of this framework is the emergence of the hero-victim — e.g. a martyr for her cause, or the modern equivalent of a noble savage who speaks truth to power. No longer are there heroes who save lives and attempt mind-boggling acts of bravery. Nowadays the best way to be deemed a hero by the media is to die as the arguable result of someone else’s folly. Historically we have moved from hero-warriors, to hero-philosophers, to hero-workers, to hero-victims.

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9 Responses to “The Media Narrative”

  1. on 07 Jul 2007 at 1:36 pm Joshua Foust

    I think you’re right that the “media” is lazy and biased… but that bias goes both ways. Put into this essay’s context, you’re basically saying one meta-narrative is superior to another, without conceding that much of the pro-war narratives guys like Yon and Roggio write are also selective and anecdotal. That’s not to say they’re wrong, or intentionally deceptive; I don’t think most reporters are intentionally deceptive either (I think you’re trying to say that when you talk about how narratives take on their own social inertia, but it still seems like you’re assigning malice).

    For example, you say “the media,” yet don’t really define which media. Do blogs, which make no pretense to objectivity, count? When Yon repeats his own personal experiences (”Anbar sure looks great to me”) and merely quotes officers in his stories, how is that a more complete picture than a Reuters reporter sending stringers into the local community to gather opinions? In the end, they both boil down to hearsay — which is what all reporting is anyway. Many different media organizations have many different narratives, and they all contain elements of truth and elements of outright fabrication — whether it is CNN, the BBC, Fox News, the Washington Post, UPI, the Christian Science Monitor, or the New York Times.

    That being said, I don’t know how you can say the American press, or the super-majority of the country that opposes the war, considers Al-Qaeda the “good guys” in this conflict. It is entirely possible — indeed, quite common, now — to consider two ideas at once: Al-Qaeda is a nasty, horrible group of men who must be stopped, and that our presence in Iraq is their best recruiting tool. That is, in fact, what most of us who oppose the war on principles beyond base anti-Americanism feel: the mission in Iraq is actually counter-productive to the GWOT, and, rather than desiring to provide our enemies a “victory” (itself a hollow and difficult thing to argue), our wish to withdraw is in fact based in a grander strategic calculus that what would happen should Iraq no longer have the unifying antagonism of the U.S. military on its soil.

    Take the Washington Post’s early Baghdad Bureau chief, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. His book, Life in the Emerald City was deeply critical of the U.S. occupation while also being sympathetic to the men in charge. He is opposed to it on the grounds of it sheer, brazen, willful incompetence — not any sort of animus toward the U.S. While his narrative is quite explicitly that of an imperial power conquering and occupying a country, that is also because we have behaved like an Imperial power conquering and occupying the country. You don’t build an enormous, Vatican-sized embassy with a 16,000 sq.ft. ambassador’s residence if you’re simply a benevolent democratizing power.

    As for Domenici… well, he’s not the only one. Again, there are a lot of us, a lot of politicians too, who have turned against the war because it has been so astoundingly botched, to continue to support it for its own sake would be deeply immoral. I don’t get what you’re saying, otherwise – whatever the reasons, another high-profile Republican ditching Bush’s unpopular war is big news, regardless of how it’s spun.

  2. on 07 Jul 2007 at 4:04 pm Peter Jackson

    Do blogs, which make no pretense to objectivity, count?

    That’s the difference. Yon and Roggio aren’t pretending to be an “objective” source. They in effect argue for their narrative, and the reader is free to take it or leave it.

    I read an article in Reason eons ago that described the whole “objective” reporting thing as a 19th century marketing schtick that never went away. At the time most newspapers were owned by political parties or other interest groups with well-known points of view so some independents began marketing themselves as “objective” as a way of differentiating themselves from the herd.


  3. on 07 Jul 2007 at 5:49 pm PogueMahone

    About half way through reading this post, I knew I wanted to leave a long reply in the comments.
    But I discovered that Joshua pretty much covered the ground that I wanted to. Only with more grace, and less slapstick.

    So I’ll just shorten my reply to,

    What Joshua said…


    P.S. I would like to point out one curiosity in the body.

    Narratives are powerful devices through which complex ideas can be simplified and passed on to others.

    To which you display nicely at the end of your work.

    What too many fail to understand is that terrorists are coming no matter what we do. The only way to stop them is to fight them, and the only way to fight them is to deny them any and all opportunities to implant themselves in a society where they can fester and poison others.

    Seems to me, that this narrative business is catching.

    But that doesn’t fit the narrative, now does it.

    Well… It doesn’t fit their narrative, but it fits yours. Like a glove.

  4. on 07 Jul 2007 at 10:41 pm Lance


    It may fit Michael’s narrative, but is it true?

  5. on 07 Jul 2007 at 11:00 pm Lance


    If what you say about the biases cutting both ways, I ask you to ponder this. In almost every instance of a story being completely wrong or fabricated, we find it is in the direction which makes the occupation look bad. Meanwhile, atrocities such as Michael Yon has been reporting on get little or no mention, certainly not prominent coverage.

    Yon and Roggio may be biased, they openly hope we will succeed, but their reporting has been excellent, and far more accurate than the wire services. Where are the stories that have embarrassed them?

    One may take issue with their analysis, though in both cases they have been very willing to criticize, but it has been pretty good as well looking back on it.

    Yon early on called the war a civil war, and got a lot of heat for doing so. Some may quibble with the term, but as he defines it, his analysis has surely been correct. He has never that I am aware of acted as if the war was anything but what it is, the good the bad and the ugly. His analysis of what does and doesn’t work well has been very good, and the military seems to be making strides in implementing the very things he has reported on that have been most successful. He and Roggio have given far more nuanced and accurate descriptions of the actual military actions than have the media.

    Roggio in particular noted signs of progress in Anbar long before the mainstream media did, and while he never acted as if those signs heralded guaranteed success, he did feel the approaches being tried were the right way to go, and that improvement was possible, for which many scoffed. He has been shown to be prescient, though he would have been right in my opinion even of the attempt had failed. It was the right way to go, it did have the potential for success, fortune however doesn’t always smile upon even the best of efforts. Regardless of that philosophical point, what is wrong with his reporting on Anbar regardless of his bias? Michael isn’t concerned as much with their bias as the sad direction of that bias, and the fact that it has lead to egregious errors and a lazy portrayal of events. Roggio and Yon’s reporting and analysis cannot be accused of either even if their hopes for success may go unfulfilled.

  6. on 21 Jan 2008 at 4:36 pm A Second Hand Conjecture » Parade of Fools

    [...] the people who write, edit and distribute the news don’t care about getting it right.  All they care about is producing a story that fits within their predominant world view where a noose equals racism in all cases, where white racism is the cause of every problem [...]

  7. on 22 Jan 2008 at 11:18 am A Second Hand Conjecture » Politics and the “Hero-Victim”

    [...] on how the media narrative tends to frame stories, I once wrote: An interesting side effect of this framework is the emergence [...]

  8. on 28 Dec 2009 at 2:21 am Albuquerque Vital Statistics

    While searching for Blogs about A Second Hand Conjecture » The Media Narrative I found your site. Thank you for the effort you have put in.

  9. on 04 Jan 2010 at 10:10 am Igre Dowland

    I am not sure that I can completely understand your comments. Would you be so kind as to expand on your reasoning a little more before I comment.

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