Choosing a Narrative

It is hard to be insightful and original and much safer to avoid contradiction of the conventional wisdom. In journalism the prevailing conventional wisdom is the simple narrative that most in media subscribe to. There are many stories that could be written about, but those that support the implicitly agreed-upon media narrative gain traction by constant repetition. You can tell that a narrative has achieved a certain prominence when it becomes the basis for jokes by late-night comedians.

President Gerald Ford was a star high school and college football player.  Nonetheless, after a few physical mishaps, the media drew a narrative of a physical klutz. Every time Ford, as would any normal human being, tripped or bumped into some object, the event would receive play in the media. As a consequence, Ford received an undeserved reputation. The media had used isolated, unrepresentative facts to create an untrue picture of Ford.

In another example, former vice-president Dan Quayle, despite being an attorney and Senator, acquired the media reputation as a simpleton. Hence, when he misspelled “potato,” the event comported with the media narrative and was continually repeated, reinforcing the media picture of Quayle.

By contrast, Al Gore, had the reputation for being smart. Hence, when he misspoke a metaphor and said, “A zebra does not change its spots,” the incident did not receive much media attention. The incident was not consistent with the prevailing narrative of an intelligent Gore,  so it was not accorded much media attention.

It is important to be aware of this effect because we are likely to witness it this election year. Since Senator John McCain is 71, some of his political opponents would like to persuade sympathetic elements of the media that the appropriate narrative should paint McCain as loosing his mental capacities due to age. In pursuit of this narrative, it is likely that silly misstatements by McCain, mistakes that we all make, will be given undo attention.

When such events occur, it should be remembered that anyone can misspeak, and that even someone as intelligent and verbally gifted as Senator Barack Obama can momentarily believe that the US is composed of 57 states.

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