NYT on Spontaneous Story Combustion

I’m going to paraphrase my keen colleague, Brent:

In the New York Times “Week in Review” there was an article about how/why our political discourse gets focused on distractions rather than substantive issues and not a single acknowledgment of the press’s leading role in this phenomenon.

And, yeah: Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s piece, “The Art of Political Distraction.” To me, an apt way to illustrate an article with that particular headline might have been an artfully-arranged collage of images of politicians and politicians’ spokespersons and cable news talking heads and members of the Washington press corps. That the Times went with a bunch of black-and-white googley eyes positioned in the shape of a shark fin (I think?) was a hint, perhaps, of the ambiguity ahead.

In the article, you can find the phrases “story line[s]” and “meta-narratives” which get “resonance” and which “Washington chases like catnip” but what you can’t find are direct answers to the obvious questions of, How does this happen? Where do these “story” lines” and “narratives” appear? Where are they aired, trial-ballooned, repeated, analyzed? Just who is this “Washington chas[ing]” distractions “like catnip?” Might it include a reporter or two (dozen)?

Stolberg does briefly note a media role in all of this: in describing the the A.I.G. bonuses “in the grand scheme of today’s taxpayer expenditures” as “a sliver of news,” she writes that the bonuses nonetheless “dominat[ed] the talk shows” (so… cable news shows? or, just, like The View? And, just the “talk shows?”) And maybe some readers recalled reading four paragraphs prior, in Stolberg’s lede, about “questions” that last week “flew hard and fast at President Obama” and filled in the blanks (those “questions” were “flying” from somewhere — I guess, reporters asked them? So, reporters were fixating on “a sliver of news?” So, reporters play a role in this “Art of Political Distraction?”)

Stolberg’s piece skates around the press’s involvement with no-fault phrases like “a distraction that grew bigger than itself,” and “these things catch on” — as if distractions just happen and flourish, unassisted. More on that:

Some distractions are cynical political maneuvers, manufactured by one political party to throw a wrench into the agenda of another. But the ones that pose the greatest political danger are those that seem to erupt spontaneously, crossing political boundaries by putting a president at odds with his own party.

When confronted with the “eruption” (“spontaneous” or otherwise) of a “distracting” story, reporters can snuff it out (ignore it), try to contain it (put it in its proper place and re-focus on issues of substance) or they can fan the flames. That there is more fanning than snuffing or containing deserved more of a place in Stolberg’s piece.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.