The Narrative Imperative, Redux

In the presidential campaign, who's spinning the yarns?

It came, this time, about halfway through Jon Stewart’s Daily Show interview with Barack Obama—that inevitable moment when the Witty Sarcasm stops and the Critical Analysis begins. The anchor leaned in, put on his Serious Expression, and asked the Democratic almost-front-runner: “Do you feel like you’re stuck in a narrative now?”

Someone call Bill Safire—there’s a new buzzphrase in town. “Narrative,” the cousin of ‘04’s “framing,” is a thoroughly modern term to designate a thoroughly ancient campaign strategy: telling a story by way of selling a product. The tactic has gone by several what’s-in-a-name incarnations, and in the current presidential election, the “narrative” designation has already established itself as the Clinton/Romney of campaign catchphrases: having pulled ahead early, it will likely be the Trail Term to beat in ‘08. So confident, in fact, is “narrative” in its own semantic supremacy that it’s already gone and found a running mate: “stuck in.” As in, no longer do candidates simply have narratives—they’re now getting themselves stuck in them.

“Obama has become stuck in a narrative not his own,” declared Pittsburgh Post Gazette columnist David Shribman’s poetically-headlined and much-linked-to editorial. “Just as the candidates are devoting hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, into burnishing their stories,” Shribman writes, “their rivals and the reporters who cover politics are writing narratives of their own. The problem, for the candidates, is that their foes and commentators are fitting everything they do into the rogue narrative, not the official narrative.”

“Rogue narrative”—that sounds serious. Let’s call it instead simply a “narrative of concern.” Obama’s NOC, of course, is his identity (largely Clinton-imposed) as the precocious little tyke who wants to play with the big kids but has yet to fully grasp the rules of the games they play. And his fellow contenders each have their own Liability Story: Clinton’s cunning. Edwards’s preening. Romney’s pandering. Giuliani’s philandering. Etc. Each NOC tends to originate from a combination of opposing-team slams and political-press punditry—and to be at least somewhat contrived. (Or, as Robert McCrum put it much more delightfully in a Guardian editorial this weekend: “A natural, unforced narrative is rarer than rocking-horse manure.”)

The question for now—as it always is at this early stage in a presidential election—is how journalists will unpack the varied narratives, both friendly and not-so-friendly, that swirl around the often-compelling and always-flawed individuals asking to be our leader. Will we provide our audiences with intellectually honest analyses of our would-be presidents—or will we succumb, as CJR has asked before, to the boys-on-the-bus-style pack journalism of the campaign trail? In other words: Will we journalists become as stuck in narratives as the candidates whose stories we tell?

Obama—who, for all his identities, has never been framed as a “punch-puller”—offers some thoughts on that. Here’s the rest of the Daily Show exchange:

Stewart: Do you feel like you’re stuck in a narrative now, and the narrative is: ‘Hillary Clinton is unlikable, but knows what she’s doing. Obama is inexperienced, but brings change’? And that narrative — no matter what you do, because it’s easily categorized — the media, or everyone else, will just slip whatever happens into those two narratives?

Obama: That’s what’s happening right now. They will probably find something new, later, to talk about. The whole —

Stewart: Could you tell us what that will BE?

Obama: We don’t know yet. Whatever sells papers.

Stewart: Whatever sells papers.

Obama: Whatever sells papers.

Obama is right—narratives do sell papers. But his pressimism, if you will, is unfair: telling stories is, after all, the reason newspapers exist. And journalists have thus far made good-faith, and largely commendable, efforts to tell (rather than just sell) campaign stories: to make sense of a wide field of candidates, to parse their backgrounds as well as their policy prescriptions—and to distinguish, in campaigns that fuse PR and politics, the truth from the spin. The boys (and girls) on the bus have done well so far. But it’s early; we still have (imagine!) 435 days left to go before the election. The question, as the races heat up and stakes start to skyrocket, is who will be campaign stories’ ultimate authors, reporters or campaigners. Because it may be bad when candidates get stuck in narratives “not their own”—but it’s downright dangerous when journalists do.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.