I’ve recently encountered two disturbing (but stimulating and, ultimately, helpful — I think) items about journalistic “narratives” spun from sometimes-scant facts.
First, both chronologically and because there’s no paywall, Caitlin Johnstone (whose name I’ve been habitually misspelling), a pretty radical progressive daily blogger journalist from down under: Dissidents Must Understand The Difference Between Fact And Narrative:
Do you know the difference between fact and narrative? Are you sure? The ability to be as lucid as possible about the difference between raw data and the story that is spun about it is absolutely essential to understanding and fighting the establishment propaganda machine.
Let’s look at Russiagate for an easy example. The narrative is that Donald Trump is secretly conspiring with the Russian government to subvert American interests to advance the agendas of the Kremlin. But what are the facts? The facts are that a few people who were associated with Trump during his presidential campaign have been convicted and pled guilty to process crimes and some underhanded dealings with nations that aren’t Russia, while Trump has been staging a regime change intervention against Venezuela, bombing Syria, arming Ukraine, implementing a Nuclear Posture Review with a more aggressive stance toward Russia, withdrawing from the INF Treaty, throwing out Russian diplomats, sanctioning Russian oligarchs, expanding NATO and securing it more funding. The narrative and the facts couldn’t be more different.
But that hasn’t mattered, has it? The propagandists have been able to get everyone worked up about the idea that Putin has managed to influence the very highest levels of the US government, despite there being no facts whatsoever to substantiate that idea. It’s pure narrative, yet it’s been used to manufacture a conceptual framework which allows anyone challenging the unipolar world order to be undermined as a Kremlin crony, from Jill Stein to Tulsi Gabbard to Glenn Greenwald to Rand Paul. There is nothing but insinuation and innuendo backing up those narratives, but that’s all they need.
Second, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. (whose name I usually shorten to Holman Jenkins), from the putatively conservative Wall Street Journal and thus behind a paywall, I fear: Suddenly, Bezos Is Media’s Hero:
Mr. Bezos and his associates deliberately promoted a Hollywood-sized misdirection, with spies and political conspiracy extending all the way to the White House and Saudi Arabia … [through] Mr. Bezos’ own Washington Post. Never mind that the only real lead Mr. Bezos’ agent provided to the paper concerned the possible role of Ms. Sanchez’s pro-Trump brother. If so, means and motive were complete: It was unnecessary to speculate about Donald Trump and the Saudis—a filigree spun on top of the tawdry facts to distract and excite the media.
Mr. Bezos’ interest seems self-evident to me: Injecting the Trump-Saudi red herring draws attention away from his own carelessness and that of Ms. Sanchez. After all, being a hero of the anti-Trump resistance, especially when Amazon lately has been vilified from the left, is better than being the chump starring in a garden-variety case of rich-guy infidelity.
… Our press seems increasingly helpless in the face of evidence-free red herrings aimed at its erogenous zones. See the widely circulated email in which Bob Woodward uncritically associates himself with Mr. Bezos’ narrative. The incentive to participate in other people’s idealized self-images is well-known in psychology. Journalists should guard against it. But, in truth, exhibiting compliance with the self-images of their sources is how many journalists do their jobs.
Which is why I strongly favor one part of what’s unfolding here: the media genuinely interesting itself in how such stories based on anonymous sources and leaks come to be published.
When the press gets done with Mr. Bezos’ private messages, let’s find out who leaked decades-old private Trump family tax documents to the New York Times. Let’s inquire into the source or sources who misrepresented to CNN, MSNBC and CBS the date on an email to make it look like the Trump campaign was in cahoots with WikiLeaks.
I could go on. How some stories come to be written strikes me as a lot more newsworthy than the stories themselves ….
If you can get through the paywall, Jenkins is a good read on l’affaire Bezos, including much that I didn’t think I could include and still be “fair use” rather than “ripoff.”
Of course, Mr. Jenkins’ “interest seems self-evident to me.” It builds the image of the Wall Street Journal’s pay-for-what-we-write model (think Apple) at the expense of the Washington Post and New York Times (think Google and Facebook, relatively speaking – or so goes Jenkins’ narrative).
Indeed, I would not be stunned were I to learn that my clicks at the Washington Post feed back into Amazon.com so it can target ads. And I’ve got as much evidence for that as the Post has for Trump and Saudi Arable being entangled with the Enquirer on this.
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