Friday, March 03, 2006

Narratives in the News

If you can't find news make it up.

Play a video (Hell, let's call it a secret confidential video) of someone telling the President that no one could be sure that the levees would not be over-topped.

Tell people that this is proof that he lied when he said that the breaching of the levees had not been foreseen. Sure, in the real world of the English language, saying that levees might be topped and that they could breach is not the same thing but this is the media not the real world.

As much as I dislike Bush I truly find it mesmerizing how the media manipulates people's perception not just in regards to Iraq and Katrina but when exaggerating crime statistics or generally sexing up any story or issue. From their decisions on what polling data to release (Zogby? Come on people.) and what stories to run and which to leave to rot on the wire services, to their taking of small data sets to draw the opposite conclusion from what the whole picture supports, to their ability to completely ignore the effect of time on trends by giving a snapshot that is completely out of context, the media has raised information management to an art. It is an art which, if I am to be honest, I kind of admire in a way like when you admire a venomous animal at the zoo-behind a layer of Plexiglas.

People accept it so readily because humans have a basic need to assimilate information into a narrative. We construct our view of the world by creating stories; simulations which follow basic themes like lust, threats, power politics, struggle, victory and defeat. When the media gives us our facts prepackaged in a self-consistent narrative with any conflicting facts excluded like so much trimmed off rind it is so much easier to stomach. Of course, since we are unable to incorporate conflicting facts into this narrative we let them bounce off us like rain which is when dealing with reality becomes difficult.
The resemblance to organized religion is unmistakable. In an example of what happens when reality crashes against your personal narrative, Mike Wallace has admitted to being astonished that soldiers who were injured serving in Iraq are still supportive of the war and don't hate the president.
Sunday night 60 Minutes report on the struggles and achievements of some military members severely wounded in Iraq, Mike Wallace admitted he was "astonished" at how "almost all of them support the war despite the fact that it's taken such a toll on them." He elaborated, "We asked them flat out: What about should we be there? And the ones that are the most severely hit believe yes, we should have been there.
Usually when you are astonished at something it means that part of your personal narrative is inaccurate and that you may be believing something that is not true. It is at the very least a signal that you need to do some examination of what you believe and why. It seems that Mike Wallace didn't bother because he used the tried and true methods of glossing over inconsistencies. A good narrative can be very compelling, especially to the narrator.


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