Beware the “Narrative”

The must-read of the day is from our good friend Paul Waldman, who like me moonlights with what seems to be a weekly column, in his case at The Week. There he absolutely nails the point at which MSM reporting on the Clintons so often leaves the rails, as it has this week:

When this email story broke, how many journalists said it was important because it “plays into a narrative” of Hillary Clinton as scandal-tainted? I must have heard it a dozen times just in the past week.

Here’s a tip for my fellow scribes and opinionators: If you find yourself justifying blanket coverage of an issue because it “plays into a narrative,” stop right there. That’s a way of saying that you can’t come up with an actual, substantive reason this is important or newsworthy, just that it that bears some superficial but probably meaningless similarity to something that happened at some point in the past. It’s the updated version of “out there” — during the Clinton years, reporters would say they had no choice but to devote attention to some scurrilous charge, whether there was evidence for it or not, because someone had made the charge and therefore it was “out there.”

“Narratives,” furthermore, aren’t delivered from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. They’re created and maintained by journalists making decisions about what’s important and how different issues should be understood. If you’re going to tell us that a new issue “plays into a narrative,” you ought to be able to say why there’s something essentially true or significant about that narrative.

Preach it, brother!

I became really phobic about “narratives” during the 2014 election cycle, when the “Great-Big-Adults-of-the-GOP-are-back-in-charge” narrative first drove primary coverage, and then affected the general election as MSM types refused to see The Crazy in GOP candidates like Joni Ernst and Thom Tillis and Tom Cotton–because The Narrative said it had been banished. That’s one of the larger lessons I wrote about in Election 2014, as a matter of fact.

Media types should know their own temptations well enough to be on constant alert of narrative-driven coverage of Hillary Clinton. Once they go there, it will be hard ever to come back.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.