Why did health care reform take so long to pass? Was it because Obama let the "narrative" get away from him? Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine Reason, wishes journalists would stop floating this theory as an all-purpose explanation for why politicians do or don't get anything done. In a meticulously argued column--first published at Reason, now reprinted in The Wall Street Journal--Welch calls on his fellow journalists to stop obsessing over which party has superior message control. Forget what's being spun, says Welch; what's actually being said?
ON THE FOURTH ESTATE
David Brooks is a "master reductionist"; Thomas Friedman is "the human one-sentence-explanation dispenser" who offers "cocktail-napkin instructions." Journalists in general spend a great deal of time "hunting for magical slogans with which personages more powerful than us can move the pliable masses."
ON WHY 'NARRATIVE' IS SO ATTRACTIVE
If all there was separating you from your political desires was a perfectly calibrated bumper sticker, imagine all the time you could save once you arrived at the right slogan! Surely beats zero-sum budgetary tradeoffs, dreary committee meetings, bill "mark-up" exercises, Congressional Budget Office scores, parliamentary maneuverings, or even substantive non-governmental policy discussions on the topics you claim to care about.
ON WHY THIS ISN'T A GOOD THING
When the hunt for narratives, metaphors, and one-line explainers becomes a central part of the nonfiction production process, all of those nagging details fade to mush and entire conclusions are constructed upon generalized statements with little or no measurable relationship to fact.
ON HOW WE MIGHT REDEEM OURSELVES
Call me a nabob, but what I think would really be heroic is if commentators with any pretensions left of journalism spent more energy telling us how a crucial piece of legislation might affect American life and public policy than on how the president might most effectively sell it to the skeptical sheeple. At least that's my narrative, and I'm sticking to it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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