Thursday, January 10, 2008

Enough With the Narratives

Two intelligent observers of politics and journalism have used the same concept to describe coverage of the presidential primaries: scripted. While I don't think that means the news media are pulling strings to elect candidates, the word helps us understand the formulaic reporting that defines so much political journalism.

Certainly the major reporters and pundits were surprised by Hillary Clinton's victory in New Hampshire. But what was not surprising was the way this was immediately cast as a new "narrative" for understanding the campaign. If the narrative of the moment after Iowa was "young leader rises from obscurity to redeem his nation," the narrative that followed New Hampshire was "the comeback of a stumbling front runner."

Narrative is a fancy word for story, and there are only so many formulas for telling a good one. While these narratives are supposed to be deeply revealing about character, in fact they are fairly transferable. They can be pinned on almost any politician in the right circumstances. Worst of all, they tell you very little about what we most want to know: how would these people govern?

When you add to this the reporting about the polling process itself (how did everyone get New Hampshire so wrong?) and market research-style reporting (this just in: working class New Hampshire voters went to Clinton), the tidal wave of hype and hyperventilating that characterizes our accelerated primary season is nearly overwhelming.

In a primary season, and especially in this ridiculously compressed year of primaries, we need more coverage that encourages us to slow down, study, think hard, and make informed choices. A chart published in the Times before the Iowa caucuses, for example, did a great job of comparing candidates' records. Unfortunately, too little of our journalism helps us do that.

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