The greatest stories ever told always include memorably drawn characters: villainous villains, sympathetic protagonists, clean plot lines, drama, suspense, and a satisfying ending. That’s entertainment. Passionate. Thrilling. Heart-warming.
Now, imagine a drama in which in every scene villains and protagonists swap roles and the plot and outcome are ambiguous. Or one in which you’re presented with only facts and figures. There are no good guys. There are no bad guys. No plot. No drama. No suspense and in addition you’d have to study really hard to understand what’s going on. You’re going to change the channel, plug in the xBox, or go for a walk.
It’s widely accepted that the news media are really only entertainment vehicles. The anchors are celebrities. Most people favor theater, bread and circuses, welfare and recreation over the real world. So, if news stories don’t contain the elements of an entertainment then the media doesn’t have an audience. Audience is what it’s all about. And honestly, you cannot begrudge a business for trying to gain market share or make a buck. And so, news stories must have villains and heroes, suspense and drama. If in one episode Democrats are heroes and Republicans villains and in the next Republicans are heroes and Democrats villains, there’s no clear plot line. As an audience member you can’t consistently identify with the changing characters and since there’s never any closure in any ongoing drama even on the next day you can’t substitute heroes for villains. To sustain interest and audience share, to advance the plot, to keep people watching, the players must remain the same: Republicans villains; Democrats heroes; news anchors clowns.
Why, though, should Democrats always be the heroes and Republicans always the villains? Well, for one, Democrats believe that individuals cannot manage their own lives and that for every misfortune, Democrats must ride to the rescue, take control, manage the afflicted life, save the victim. Republicans believe people generally and Americans specifically are resilient and can manage quite well on their own, thank you. So Republicans are mischaracterized as unfeeling Darwinists. Democrats are the party of hedonists, of license and indulgence. The party of play. The grasshopper to the ant. A happy ending means you get what you want for which of course in a play there are no real consequences.
Republicans, on the other hand, want to hold people responsible for their choices. It’s not so much preventing poor behavior as ensuring there are consequences for bad choices. Santa Claus versus Scrooge. Scrooge may have a turn of heart in the end but Santa Claus wins hands down under any scenario. Moreover, for Scrooge to become Santa Claus, he must alter his behavior. Just as Republicans do when they attempt to become more like Democrats, compromise on their principles, and allow for a $17 trillion dollar debt to accumulate in order to give people what they want. Democrats believe in a free lunch as long as someone else is paying for it. Republicans believe there are consequences for which someone must take responsibility. Democrats engage in fantasy; Republicans engage reality. Democrats treat everyone as children in need of care. Republicans treat people as adults and impose limits. They must be the bad guys, then.
Listen to this claim by Dana Milbank appearing on Howard Kurtz’s “Media Buzz”: ‘the story line about the partial government shutdown was far greater in importance than the plot line of the disastrous Obamacare rollout’. Every mainstream media outlet adopted the primacy of the shutdown story line. Why was it far greater in importance than the rollout? Who actually made that decision? How is it that it’s parroted across all media outlets? It would be like making the claim that news organizations couldn’t cover the collapse of the North Tower at the World Trade Center because the collapse of the South Tower was more important. Each event was equally significant in it’s tragic outcome. Can’t the media walk and chew gum at the same time?
Still, every mainstream media outlet led with the same story line on the partial shutdown as though it was far more important than that disastrous and continuing disaster of the Obamacare rollout. In fact, not only did they hype the partial shutdown they heaped the blame squarely on one side, Republicans, and excused the other, Democrats, when, if they were neutral observers, they’d assign blame equally. They manufacture drama by taking sides. Their story line is advanced. To watch one national news outlet is to watch any other.
The media focus on plot and character, heroes and villains is a testament to their laziness and lack of creative effort to make critical governing issues interesting and understandable to a self governing nation. Instead the media trumpet the political spin by the heroes in their drama while denouncing the plot line of their villains. They set themselves up as the Greek Chorus: entertain the audience, advance the plot, explain the characters and events. That is, they make themselves part of the show.
But, governing is not a play to be presented to a passive audience. Reporting has to be a dispassionate presentation of unfolding events and facts, an unbiased presentation of the alternative points of view detailing each parties strengths, weaknesses, risks, possible outcomes of competing ideas. Unfortunately this takes time and doesn’t make for dramatic viewing or reading. Our nation is poorer for the failure of the 4th estate to honestly practice their constitutionally protected role and we cannot ultimately govern ourselves without a fair representation of the available information.
It is up to conservatives, Republicans, Libertarians – even those very few honest politicians – to demand more truthfulness and even-handedness from the media. This means an in your face challenge to their biases and story lines for as long as it takes to shame them into their proper role. They are not the Greek Chorus nor champions of one faction over another. Their role is not to advance the narrative nor one outcome over another. Nor to judge or conclude. Nor to be players in the drama. They are to communicate information only. Or, as one famous character often quipped, “Just the facts, ma’am.”