What's the (New) Story?

Newspapers hold seminars for their reporters and more often than not journalists are taught to think about narrative and storytelling in their writing. Narrative is supposed to attract readers. Or so editors say. It’s interesting that the overseers of institutions that are losing popularity and subscribers somehow seem to know how to “attract” the “average reader,” but they do and reporters are asked to look for ways to employ narrative in their writing. But at what cost?

Rich writes this morning about the “master narratives” of the campaign. We can see them forming – stories of war, of terrorism, of courage, of Vietnam and 9/11. Following the advice of editors and experts, journalists pick up these narratives and they become the template of the campaign and our public lives.

So Al Gore becomes the man too eager to change and to please. One Bush is the patrician who is baffled by a grocery checkout scanner and his son is the drunken dunce. Kerry is … Well, we all know how this goes on and on. Campaigns are now competitions among these master narratives, and reporters dutifully write their reports within the stick-built construction of these overarching “stories.”

My wife tells me that narrative is a perfectly fine way to construct a piece of writing. But she contends it comes at a price. And the price is confinement. Narratives are expressions about what happened, not what will be. They aren’t critical. They don’t even make an argument. They just are and in that sense they are no different than advertising. (The consultants must love the way we now cover campaigns.)

The master narrative isn’t good for candidates or the country. Can a president pick a course that conflicts with the story of his life, even if it’s the right thing? Not a chance. (See Meredith McGehee’s post.) And if voters pick their future on an unchanging “story” of the past, aren’t we giving up the democratic promise of being active participants in public life?

Like I said, we in the press love the narrative way of covering just about everything. (And if we can’t find the perfect narrative foil, some of us will make ‘em up.) But it might help us all if we gave up on the “story” and found instead some fact, some argument, some persuasion, some different way of looking at things, so that the new story of the nation and the world doesn’t turn out to sound so much like the old.