Entry from June 17, 2010

The ghastly sludge that pollutes the waters of our political and media cultures washes up revoltingly under our noses in the headline to the New York Times’s “News Analysis” by Peter Baker of the President’s Oval Office address on Tuesday about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “Obama Seeks to Shift Arc of Oil Crisis.” Look but there upon that word “arc” and all that it implies. It is a word from literary criticism and is short for “story arc” — that is, the shape described by a narrative, like that of most fictional stories in novels and movies, dramas and TV shows, with a beginning, a middle and an end that have something to do with each other. In particular, it is the job of the story-teller so to craft his words and, as it may be, his images so that the end is implied in the beginning and the middle and follows naturally from them. The story is an artifact, something made by human ingenuity for a purpose and not, ex hypothesi, a mere “slice of life” transferred directly onto the page.

All this is pretty basic stuff for the literary critic, but the artifice has begun to seem tiresome and antiquated to many story-tellers, especially those who tell their stories on film or videotape, who are increasingly jettisoning traditional story-telling in favor of what they imagine are more genuine and immediate modes of experience. I have written about this lamentable loss in connection with the movies here and here.Yet even as the arts of story-telling are despised and rejected by the movies they are being taken up by the news media, who see them as a kind of liberation from the tyranny of events, to which they are otherwise subject, and an opportunity to give reality a shape and meaning according to a particular world view. Sam Schulman wrote an excellent account of this on-going revolution in journalistic practice in The Weekly Standard shortly before the election of President Obama, who has done so much to accelerate the process since then.

For, just as it is the job of the media, as they now see it, to shape reality to fit their master narrative, so it is the job of politicians, their handlers and PR advisers, to “bend the curve” (as the President has put it in another context) of that narrative arc so as to make the story sound more favorable to them. What we see in Mr Baker’s piece is the way in which the media react to this arc-bending by taking it more and more upon themselves to report on the politicians’ strategies, rather than on the things they are strategizing about. Their own narratives thus inch away from stories of the oil-spill, its causes and its effects, and instead in the direction of PR strategies, of “narratives” of the politics of perception, which is, therefore, increasingly the only kind of politics — or news, for that matter — that there is.

“While laying out his ‘battle plan’ to break ‘this siege’ from a spill ‘assaulting our shores,’ the commander in chief hoped to pivot from defense to offense,” writes Mr Baker, “using the still- unresolved crisis in the Gulf of Mexico to press for sweeping change in energy policy.”

Evoking the spirit and language of predecessors who used the same setting to send troops into harm’s way, Mr. Obama cast the effort to cap a well as part of the American determination to shape its own destiny. “The one approach I will not accept is inaction,” Mr. Obama said from behind the presidential desk named Resolute with the traditional flags in the background. “The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet.” For eight weeks, the spill has seemed somehow too big and too difficult to meet as the president struggled to contain it while trying to demonstrate leadership, sympathy and anger. It was not clear that this was one of those dramatic moments that alter the arc of a political crisis.

Bravo! Now there’s “analysis” for you. Now that we can see what he is doing about public perceptions, we no longer need to worry about what, if anything, he is doing about the oil spill. Mr Obama is seeking to take command of the narrative, and the media’s own narrative quickly alerts us to how and why he is doing it. The practical matter of the spill itself, its causes and consequences long- and short-term is all but forgotten. It is an illustration of what Mr Schulman wrote in the Standard about the 2008 presidential campaign, in which it became particularly evident how

in search of a narrative, the press constantly seeks to reveal the ending and name the hero before the story has reached its climax. Naturally, it finds itself dismayed, not excited, by new events in the actual world and changes in opinion among the real-life voters. In the campaign that takes place in real life, not narrative, new facts emerge constantly. New facts the press once upon a time called “news,” which sold newspapers and grew audiences. Now, so invested are journalists in narratives that new facts and new personalities make them anxious and unhappy, instead of eager and interesting. And that anxiety they communicate to us — fewer and fewer of us — daily. The news industry, which has thrived for centuries as a chorus reporting what it sees, now has seized the author”s job and invents the plot. No wonder the audience for newspapers and television news has been dwindling so quickly.

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