The Narrative is Always Right!

Akaky of The Passing Parade commented on my recent post, ‘The Narrative Was Right’ about the misuse of the idea of narrative in news reporting thus:

The narrative is always right, because if it isn’t then the media would have to re-examine its prejudices, and what’s the point of having prejudices if you have to think about them all the time?

A succinct summation that I think points to a certain mental laziness that afflicts journalism and many other routinized processes of the industrial age. For some reason holiday wrapping paper comes to mind – bold reds and greens for Christmas, pastels for Easter and so on. Journalists wrap certain kinds of event in certain narratives and are probably more reluctant to change narratives than department store managers are to try something new for Easter. Part of us wants novelty, but part of us wants the comfort of the familiar too. What I think the postmodern habit of mind has done is put too much emphasis on a concept appropriate to fiction – narrative – and created a professional atmosphere that is permissive of letting the narrative distort the facts.

I ran into a spirited defense of the postmodern view by Penelope Trump shortly after writing my post at the Huffington Post here:

Read the whole thing – it is short, entertaining and she uses a striking personal example that involves fiction and the kind of truth that can only be gotten at by fiction. She sums up the core of her argument thus:

Here’s my advice: If you do an interview with a journalist, don’t expect the journalist to be there to tell your story. The journalist gets paid to tell her own stories which you might or might not be a part of. And journalists, don’t be so arrogant to think you are not “one of those” who misquotes everyone. Because that is to say that your story is the right story. But it’s not. We each have a story. And whether or not someone actually said what you said they said, they will probably still feel misquoted.

Andy Warhol used to take the mickey out of interviewers by telling them to tell him what they wanted him to say and he would say it. The postmodern excess here is seeing no difference of value between the reporter’s story and that of the person interviewed. This overly relative view obscures the role of the journalist as the person seeking information and the person interviewed as a source of information. Postmodernism is helpful when it points out there is a difference between the story the person interviewed wants to tell and the story the journalist hopes to tell – but it is nonsense to pretend that the journalist’s story need not be derived from the independent existence of facts including what is said in interviews. One of Penelope Trump’s commenters – who appears to be an experienced journalist – points out that objective truth in journalism can cut both ways.

Experience tells me not to pay much attention to those who say they were misquoted. I learned long ago to tape my interviews and my phone calls because, I’ve found, there are a lot of really stupid people out there. They tell you some outrageous lie because that’s what they hope to see in print. And when they see it in print they’re very happy — until people who know the truth start calling them liars in public. Then they point at the journalist and say they were misquoted. If you’re the journalist and don’t have them on tape, you’re screwed. I think it’s good policy for journalists, and for writers generally, to disregard anything anyone says if they won’t say it in front of a tape recorder.

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