Issues of Narrative
What journalists do when "the facts are wrong."

The American Spectator, October 2007

In a summer postmortem on the Duke University rape hoax, Rachel Smolkin of the American Journalism Review summed up much of what is wrong with journalism today:

Perhaps the most complex lessons about the media coverage of the Duke case involve issues of narrative. Unquestionably, the media too readily ran with a simplistic storyline, sacrificing a search for truth. Not only were the accused innocent of rape, the allegations of racial taunts that received so much media attention appear to have been exaggerated.

"We fell into a stereotype of the Duke lacrosse players," says Newsweek's Evan Thomas. "It's complicated because there is a strong stereotype [that] lacrosse players can be loutish, and there's evidence to back that up. There's even some evidence that the Duke lacrosse players were loutish, and we were too quick to connect those dots."

But he adds: "It was about race. Nifong's motivations clearly were rooted in his need to win black votes. There were tensions between town and gown, that part was true. The narrative was properly about race, sex and class. . . . We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place. . . . We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong."

"The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong." In a way, it's an old story. In 1931, as the historian John Steele Gordon wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, two white women in Alabama falsely accused nine black men of rape. "Because the circumstances of the women's story--black men attacking and raping white women--fit the prevailing racial paradigm of the local white population, guilt was assumed and the governor was forced to call out the National Guard to prevent a lynch mob from hanging the men on the spot."

In due course the men, known as the Scottsboro boys, were vindicated, but only after all were convicted and some spent years in prison. The "narrative" of the Scottsboro boys' guilt was "right" in the Evan Thomas sense--it was consistent with the stereotypes of the times. But it was a false and scurrilous charge for which innocent men paid.

The problem of journalists disregarding facts in favor of "narrative" is not limited to stories about race. In September 2004, the New York Times published a memorable headline that foreshadowed Evan Thomas's "the narrative was right" declaration: "Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says."

The subject was the counterfeit documents on which CBS had based a story purporting to reveal that a 20-something George W. Bush had shirked his National Guard duty. A woman who did not type the documents told the Times that although she "believed that they are fakes," they nonetheless "accurately reflect the thoughts of the commander" for whom she had worked between 1957 and 1979, and who died in 1984.

This was high comedy: a once-great newspaper reduced to defending another news organization's reliance on fraudulent documents on the ground that they could have been real, and all in the service of a "narrative"-- George W. Bush was a slacker when he was young--that had been established four years earlier and elicited a yawn from the voters.

Sometimes the stakes are higher. As I have argued (see "Bad News Bearers," TAS, February 2006), the media, in reporting the Iraq war, have largely been following a Vietnam-era narrative in which war becomes quagmire, provoking domestic opposition and leading to American withdrawal. Because journalists influence as well as reflect public opinion, such a narrative has the potential to become self-fulfilling. Reading over and over about an "increasingly unpopular war"--a Factiva search turns up 1,170 stories using this phrase in the 18 months beginning in February 2006--is bound to induce some people to hop aboard the defeatist bandwagon.

Indeed, for many months public opinion moved in accord with the defeatist media narrative, and this contributed to the Republican defeat in the 2006 congressional elections. But then President Bush appointed a new commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and his new approach showed signs of working. Public opinion began to shift in support of the war. And the New York Times didn't believe it.

On July 24 the Times published a poll that found the proportion of Americans who said liberating Iraq had been the right thing to do had risen to 42 percent from 35 percent two months earlier. The following day, the paper's website carried a follow-up story:

The war in Iraq is the single most important ongoing news story right now. Public opinion about the war is a critical part of that story. That's why when we had a poll finding about the war that we could not explain, we went back and did another poll on the very same subject. We wanted to make sure we had gotten it right.

It turns out we had gotten it right. Support for the initial invasion of Iraq, as measured by a question the New York Times/CBS News poll has asked since December 2003, increased modestly compared to two months ago.

The Times went on to explain that it doubted the first July poll because the results were "counterintuitive." It would have been more accurate to say that it was counter narrative--it did not follow the media's antiwar script.

By mid-August, a full-fledged counternarrative had begun to take hold. Democrats, who had been betting on failure in Iraq, were hedging, as the Times reported August 12:

Even as they call for an end to the war and pledge to bring the troops home, the Democratic presidential candidates are setting out positions that could leave the United States engaged in Iraq for years.

John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, would keep troops in the region to intervene in an Iraqi genocide and be prepared for military action if violence spills into other countries. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York would leave residual forces to fight terrorism and to stabilize the Kurdish region in the north. And Senator Barack Obama of Illinois would leave a military presence of as-yet unspecified size in Iraq to provide security for American personnel, fight terrorism and train Iraqis.

These positions and those of some rivals suggest that the Democratic bumper-sticker message of a quick end to the conflict--however much it appeals to primary voters--oversimplifies the problems likely to be inherited by the next commander in chief. Antiwar advocates have raised little challenge to such positions by Democrats.

That last sentence rang false to blogger Jules Crittenden, who wrote: "NYT, meet Cindy Sheehan." Just three days earlier, Sheehan had announced that she plans to challenge Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, in 2008, because Pelosi has not taken steps to impeach the President over Iraq.

It may be said that the Times was right to ignore Sheehan. After all, she is a fringe figure, an America-hating crackpot whose race against Pelosi is utterly quixotic and futile. But all this was equally true in the summer of 2005, when Sheehan camped out in Crawford, Texas, and became a media cause célèbre by issuing a series of demands for the President of the United States.

Back then, the narrative was right, even if the facts were wrong.

Next article: Unstatesmanlike conduct (The American Spectator, 11/07)

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