Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Where Journalism Fails

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Doc Searls blogged in July 2019:

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: The Story.

Or, in the parlance of the moment, The Narrative. (Trend.)

I was just 22 when I wrote my first stories as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around three elements:

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement toward resolution

Subtract one or more of those and all you’ll have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. Which won’t run. So let’s unpack those elements a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way.

For a case-in-point of how this can go very wrong, we have the character now serving as President of the United States, creating problems and movement around them with nearly everything he says and does.

We have never seen Donald Trump’s like before, and may never again. His genius at working all three elements are without equal in our time—or perhaps any time. So please, if you can, set your politics aside and just look at the dude through the prism of Story.

Donald Trump spins up stories at least four ways:

  1. Through constant characterization of others, for example with nicknames (“Little Mario,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Failing New York Times”)
  2. By finding or creating problems, and characterizing those too: “witch hunt,” “fake news,” “illegal ballots,” “Dominion-izing the Vote.”
  3. By creating movement via the Roy Cohn and Roger Stone playbook: always attack or counter-attack, sue constantly, claim victory no matter what. (Roy Cohn was a lawyer Frank Rich felicitously called “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” Talk about character: Cohn was absolutely interesting. As Politico puts it here, “Cohn imparted an M.O. that’s been on searing display throughout Trump’s ascent, his divisive, captivating campaign, and his fraught, unprecedented presidency. Deflect and distract, never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.”)
  4. By playing the ultimate alpha. That’s why he constantly calls himself the winner, no matter what.
  5. By de-legitimizing facts, truths, norms, and those who traffic in them. Key to this is accusing others of wrongs he commits himself. This is why he labels CNN and other news organizations “fake news” while turning the generation of it into an art form. Also why his accusations against others are a reliable tell of his own guilt for doing the same thing.
  6. As for movement, every new problem Trump creates or intensifies is meant to generate an emotional response, which is movement in itself.

Look closely: the news Trump makes is deliberate, theatrical and constant. All of it is staged and re-staged, so every unavoidably interesting thing he says or does pushes the last thing he said or did off the stage and into irrelevance, because whatever he’s saying or doing now demands full attention, no matter what he said or did yesterday.

There is true genius to this, and it requires understanding and respect—especially by those who report on it.

You can call this trolling, or earned media coverage, meaning the free kind. Both are true. So is comparing Trump to The Mule in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (The Mule was a mutant with exceptional influence over the emotions of whole populations. It was by noting this resemblance that I, along with Scott Adamsexpected Trump to win in 2016.)

Regardless of what one calls it, we do have two big fails for journalism here:

  1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.
  2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2021 at 6:09 pm

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