So yes, TV news suffers from delusions of adequacy. But let’s move beyond pop criticism and look at a problem academics have often identified as one of the roots of boob tube evil, the idea that its news tends to be episodic rather than thematic. Or in the words of political scientist Shanto Iyengar, TV tends to tends to present “recurring issues as unrelated events.”
Put another way, TV new stories appear as a single episode unconnected from a thematic whole.
Only if it were still so.
These concerns arise largely from research conducted in the 1980s and the early 1990s, back when the three broadcast television networks dominated the planet, when fat newspaper profit margins walked the Earth, and just before the emergence of two media institutions — talk radio and cable news — that make concerns about a lack of theme appear so very naive.
Indeed, it’s hard to find “news” today that isn’t squeezed into some narrative framework.
I use the word narrative here quite on purpose, mainly because I’ve heard it over and over again in recent weeks as partisans snipe at one another over the airwaves. Stewart blasts Fox News for avoiding stories that fail to fit its “fear-driven narrative.” Sean Hannity warns his talk radio listeners about the dangerous “liberal narrative.”
With both sides focused now on narrative, I come today to praise the episodic.
In science there are two approaches to knowledge. One is deductive reasoning, which begins with a theory and then moves to observations to test it. A lack of support means the theory needs rethinking. The other is method inductive reasoning, which begins with specific observations to arrive at some theory or explanation. If I haven’t put you to sleep yet, the difference really does matter.
News has become more deductive than inductive, more driven by an beginning theme or narrative. And that’s a damn shame.
“Opinion in all its forms,” said radio guy Ira Glass in a recent talk, “is kicking the ass of journalism.”
For those who don’t know, Glass is host of This American Life, an excellent program heard on public radio stations across the country, the kind of show definitely deserving of mention on the web site stuff white people like. But Glass has a point, a painful one. By kicking journalism’s ass, I assumed at first he meant with ratings and readers, the only true measures when it comes right down to it. Now, though, I’m convinced he means something deeper, something more sinister. I think he means the N-word. He means narrative. I also suspect he means getting at the truth, or a version of the truth, in a way mainstream media often fail to do given the constraints of journalistic practice and the artificial way, especially on TV, how stories are often told.
There’s nothing wrong with narrative. You can read a fascinating, if somewhat academic, discussion of it here. In journalism, by narrative we typically mean a form of storytelling beyond the rat-a-tat of straight news. The Nieman folks at Harvard, for example, do a very nice job of gathering some of the best narrative journalism (see also this web site for a good read).
But these are stories, true stories, told using all the tricks found in good fiction, like plot and character and tension, with nothing invented. Truth is stranger than fiction, and it makes for damn good stories if told with skill and an eye for telling detail.
By narrative in today’s partisan battlefield, each side is painting the other as fitting facts, any facts, to a pre-existing storyline. Some might call it framing, others might call it spin, and cynics might argue it’s always been that way, but never has there been so strong a narrative in sources that demand so much attention. The TV talkers on MSNBC and Fox News come immediately to mind, but let’s not forget talk radio and a handful of web sites with the audience, and the influence, to squeeze the facts into a pre-existing storyline like a size 6 trying to fit into a size 2 dress.
This may be the future: a constellation of news sources, all with their own narrative, scooping facts from the spew of daily events and telling their truth their way. It certainly seems a more profitable approach, at least when it comes to ratings and audience. But along the way we lose a sense of common knowledge and consensus. A starting point in our national conversation.
So I come to praise the episodic in news, the individual bit of story that stands alone outside some overall narrative about how the world is, or ought to be. Or what some talkmeister believes it should be.