Sunday, February 03, 2008

Deconstructing the Narrative

The mainstream media likes to tell certain kinds of stories.

Stories with classic plots that are easy to follow. Stories with tried-and-true themes that are quickly and nearly universally recognized. Stories with characters of a certain stock type, personalities painted in broad, simple strokes.

Stories with these qualities lend themselves to ten minute segments. Stories like these are easy to craft thirty minutes before a broadcast, to fill in a time slot left empty by a last-minute canceled interview. Stories like these don’t require hours of careful investigative reporting to prepare.

And stories like these can be absorbed and remembered by viewers with minimal effort. No special attention or critical thought is required to digest such classically structured tales. A harried mother, half-listening to the morning newscast as she tries to get three sleepy kids ready and out the door before the school bus comes, can grasp the basics of a story if it’s presented in such a way that it resembles many stories she’s heard before. The construction worker sitting half-asleep on the couch after working two shifts can get the gist of the night’s news if he already knows how each segment is going to end before it even starts.

This is the Hero with a Hidden Dark Side. This is the Villain with a Hidden Tragic Past. This is the Damsel in Distress. This is the Terrifying Psychotic Killer. This is the Thieving Rich Man. This is the Cheating Wife.

This is the Moment of Comeuppance.

This is the Surprise Plot Twist That Is Not Really So Much of a Surprise.

These stories are easy to for reporters to write, and easy for viewers to understand.

Never mind whether or not they are insightful.

Never mind whether they are accurate representations of the real life events they portray.

In fact, the mainstream media likes stories like this so much that when the real-life people involved in these stories do something or say something that adds some nuance to their character that doesn’t fit a stock type, or undermines a ready-made, classic plot, all too often, the mainstream media doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

They don’t report on it. Or they do report on it, but try to spin it in such a way as to make it seem like it still fits a template already chosen. Or they hold it up as an example of an exception to prove a rule.

This attitude never seems to be in fuller force than it is during coverage of a political race. And the current presidential primary season is no exception.

On the Democratic Side, we have the Seasoned Incumbent, a Shrewd Politician with a Slightly Controversial Past who is No Stranger to Dirty Washington Politics But That Might Be a Good Thing.

This year’s Surprise Plot Twist, of course, is that the Seasoned Incumbent happens to be a WOMAN. [Cue artfully raised eyebrows.]

But that’s easy enough to deal with: we’ll just tell the people who don’t like the idea of a woman president that she’s either a Bra-Burning Feminist Ballbuster or a Pretender Riding on the Coattails of Her Husband. And of course, when she does well in the primaries it will Only Be Because Sexually Frustrated Middle-Aged Women Voted for Her Out of Sympathy, and Not Because She Is At All Inspiring or Likeable as a Candidate.

For the people who do like her, she can be an Inspirational Matriarch who is being Unfairly Maligned by the Sexist Media. [We can get away with slapping that Sexist Media label on ourselves without consequences, because it’s still pretty socially acceptable for Blustery Male Media Pundits to patronize women.]

Then we have the Charismatic White Knight Challenger who is Young, Very Charming and Stylish [Oh, let’s not forget Clean and Articulate! That was a great gift from poor Senator Foot-in-Mouth. We got a lot of laughs out of that guy before we pushed him out of the race for not being Articulate himself.] But of course, we must consider the fact that the Challenger is Inexperienced, and so, Possibly Na├»ve, and that therefore his candidacy could be a nothing more than a trumped-up Fairy Tale. [Scored a freebee again! Thanks, Former Popular President Who Either Doesn’t Believe in Term Limits or Maybe Just Feels Guilt About the Infidelity! We don’t even have to try to make up controversial labels for this Challenger guy—his opponents are doing it for us!]

This year’s Second Surprise Plot Twist is that the White Knight happens to be black. [BONUS! Two Plot Twists? This will kill in the ratings! Cue the Stuffy Presidential Historians grinning like Kids in a Candy Store!]

For people who like the idea of a black president, he can be both an Heir to Kennedy and The Realization of the Dreams of Dr. King, Who Will Finally Heal the Racial Divide in Our Country!

For people who don’t like that idea, he can just be That Black Candidate Who is Obviously Really Only Popular Because Lots of Black People Are Voting for Him Just Because He’s Black and It’s Not Like They Are Voting For Him Because They Think He Has Effective Policies or Would Be a Good Leader or Anything—It’s Just Like When They Voted for That Wacko Jesse Jackson, So You Closet Racists Don’t Have to Panic Because He Won’t Win—Just Ignore All the White College Graduates Voting for Him Too Because We All Know a Liberal Education Warps the Mind Anyway.

[Whew! Thanks again, Former President Guy! We would have looked kind of bad if we had implied all that ourselves. It’s a lot harder for us to get away with blatant racial baiting these days, despite the wonders it does for the ratings. But you can get away with more awkward comments than we can because that one Venerable Feminist Black Author made that joke one time that you were The First Black President. And once you say something vaguely insensitive, we can totally blow it out of proportion and milk it for all it’s worth.]

For a while we also had the Nice Small-Town Southern Boy who Made Good and Now Wants to Give Back to The Poor on the list, but we got kind of tired of that story last election cycle, and, let’s face it— he’s not nearly as exciting as the other two—so, this time around, we shorted him on coverage and mostly shut him out of the debates until he got frustrated and left the campaign trail to be with his Poor Dying Wife. [Heh. Sucker.]

And the other early candidates on the Democratic short list made for some great Crazy Fringe Leftist and Mysterious Weirdo jokes!

On the Republican side [which—let’s face it—we’re not paying nearly as much attention to what with those great Plot Twists happening in the Democratic Party], we have this primary’s best candidate for Ambitious Flip Flopper with a Large Fortune—that one always plays well on the interview circuit. He’s an Unconventional Christian, too, which is a nice sub-plot.

For the first time in recent memory we have a Real Honest-to-God Evangelical [Who let that guy in, anyway? He’s an actual minister? What a drag! Damn that Colbert Bump. At least he’s got a Has-Been Action Star with a Cult Internet Following backing him. That’s good for kicks.]

We have a classic Wacko Libertarian with a Cult Following who wants to Dismantle the Government. [Make sure you get only his craziest-looking supporters on camera—try to find someone on stilts in face paint.]

And, returning [for the—wait—how many times has he tried to run, again? Look that up so we can mention it casually in the context of something else while pretending we are not actually bringing up his advanced age] we have the Principled, Underappreciated Genuine War Hero who is an Occasional Party Renegade and likes to Tell it Like it Is. We almost shut him down, but then we had a change of heart. We’re really thinking this may finally be His Year.

It’s a thrilling cast of characters, to be sure. And what a gripping backdrop for the tale! A nation at war. An energy crisis. A housing crisis. An economy on the brink of collapse. Rampant government corruption. Greedy corporations run amok. Foreign imports poisoning the population. Children dying from things like asthma attacks and tooth abscesses because they can’t get basic medical care.

[Actually, that is quite a list of serious problems, there. ]

[Do you, um, think that, uh, maybe this tanking economy thing might start to affect the mainstream media’s advertising revenue? ]

[And you know, just between you and me, I’ve had a really hard time lately getting the insurance company to pay for my kid’s physical therapy. And the studio just keeps whittiling away at our insurance benefits every year, while the premiums keep going up! I’m telling you, it’s highway robbery.]

[You don’t suppose that maybe, just maybe, instead of the same old stories, the American people might want us to, oh, I dunno, actually talk in-depth about how these candidates plans to FIX some of these problems? ]

[Nah . . .]

I know! Let’s think up forty different ways to ask the Democratic candidates whether they think this election’s campaign is all about race and gender! We can go on and on about whether the country is “ready” for a woman or minority president!

And then when that peters out, we can focus on the experience/inexperience thing. [Be sure not to mention the fact that Barack Obama actually has a couple more years’ actual legislative experience than Hillary Clinton does if you count his time in the state legislature, though. That could spoil our whole image of him as a fresh-faced kid. And be SURE you don’t let him plug his website on the air. There is WAY too much detailed policy information there. We need everyone to think he’s more style than substance, or the narrative breaks down.]

We’ll get some more traction over ridiculous email rumors that the Charismatic White Knight Challenger is actually a Brainwashed Secret Muslim Operative Who Hates America. [Handle this one with care. Be sure not to let anyone ask why it would be such a terrible, evil thing anyway to have a Muslim president in a country that is supposed to value religious freedom. Or why so many people automatically associate Islam with brainwashed terrorists, when the vast majority of Muslims around the world are peace-loving moderates. If Average Americans start remembering that most Muslims are normal people, they might start asking us to stop using the Faceless Muslim Terrorist character type. And that one is really useful for scaring the crap out of folks.]

And then we can look at a few polls that show the Seasoned Incumbent losing against the Principled War Hero, and ask if her History of Controversy makes her Too Much of a Divider, all the while signaling with a wink and a nudge that what we actually mean is that this country is Not Ready for a Woman President because Men Won’t Vote for People with Ovaries. [Be sure not to talk much about Pakistan while we do this. If people remember that a country with a small but vocal faction of radical conservatives who are so anti-feminist they don’t even want women’s faces to be seen outside of the home once managed to elect that woman former Prime Minister who was recently assassinated to prevent the Pakistanis from electing her AGAIN, they might start to wonder: In such a socially progressive country as the United States, is it really that the electorate WON’T elect a woman president, or is it just that the media keeps telling the electorate they CAN’T?]

By the end of all this, we hope the viewers will be so confused and frustrated about elections and government they will throw up their hands in despair.

And then we can remind them that the best way to cure despair is to buy things!

From our advertisers.


Anonymous said...

did I ever tell you how much I lurve your brain?!?! did I ?

R said...

I lurve your brain too. You crack me up. I didn't realize I was confused until I read this, (kidding) seriously, it was great.

Debbie said...

*bows low before the -- you know what? I'm building you a whatchamacallit. (bear with me, working on around 3 hours' sleep, here.) a thing. a -- what the hell were the buildings the ancients peoples used to erect in honor of their most beloved goddesses?

anyway. I bow low before you in your goddess building, replete with a towering statue of you reclining on a velvet couch, son at your feet, husband hanging around in the back, tinkering with a pc. all in marble! it'll be beautiful.

you win the brain prize today x many.

the end*

Kady said...

two thumbs up for sneaky reference to colbert bump.

But he's MY boyfriend (hands off!)

Jaelithe said...

Hey, there's enough Colbert to go around, right? ;)