We all know the Washington media swims in an ever-shifting stream of “narratives” that drive coverage in one direction or another on an hourly basis – or, if one really has juice, can dominate coverage for months and months. Unfortunately, these narratives usually have only a tenuous connection to reality, and even to political reality. Unless they become the political reality, which happens sometimes, but less often than you think. This situation is, needless to say, bad. The focus on narratives is not journalism – at its worst, it’s a kind of anti-journalism that obscures the truth rather than illuminates it.
Politico is Washington’s premier narrative factory, and yesterday it was cranking them out: editor John Harris posted a piece called 7 stories Barack Obama doesn’t want told. Here they are: “He thinks he’s playing with monopoly money,” “Too much Leonard Nimoy,” “That’s the Chicago way,” “He’s a pushover,” “He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe,” “President Pelosi,” “He’s in love with the man in the mirror.”
The headline gives the reader the tantalizing sense that Harris is dipping into something forbidden, the “real” story the White House wants to keep from you. But of course these stories are not “stories” at all in the traditional Who-What-Where-When-How sense. They are narratives. Some of them (“Chicago way” and “Pushover”) are mutually contradictory.
Harris will say he’s just reporting what’s out there. But just scanning the titles it’s obvious that all of them are manufactured BS.
I’m not defending Obama here – he certainly deserves criticism on the deficit, health care, Afghanistan – everything. But Harris’s “7 stories” are not substantive criticism. Quite the opposite – they are flatly misleading. And putting them in this format isn’t a way to inform readers, the basic function of journalism. In essence, it’s market testing to see which political attack is stickiest – what drives traffic, what’s the most promising way to trip up the president. A floundering president ideologically out-of-step with the nation is a much better story than a centrist, boring, bureaucratically competent one, which is basically what Obama is.
Harris could have made an attempt to evaluate these lines of attack on the merits. Is Obama’s deficit spending out of line with that of past presidents in similar situations? Is he cavalier on budget matters? Does he really love himself too much? But that’s not what this is about.
A White House aide’s unofficial response, leaked to Marc Armbinder, isn’t especially clever. (Washington is generally not a good place for zingers.) But it contains more truth than the Politico piece.