When Narrative Trumps the Facts
The ratio of noise to signal is becoming overwhelming.
Dear Reader (Including the gang over at the NSA who got to read the emailed version of this I sent to the office for editing),
I’ve been calling this a “news”letter for so long, I can’t remember when it started. It was sometime after the debut of the original Goldberg File—a name Rich Lowry and I came up with after several not very intense minutes of deliberation more than two decades ago. That’s because the original G-File was essentially a blog, even though it started before the word “blog” was widely used. Anyway, none of this is very interesting so I’ll stop writing about it, save as a segue to talk about “news.”
I don’t mean “fake news,” a term that usually—but not always—describes a report that is, in fact, true. If you counted up all the times Donald Trump has declared something to be “fake news,” I would make a ballpark guess that in 90 percent of those the revelation was entirely or at least broadly accurate.
No, I’m talking about stuff that is reported like it’s news, stuff that is accurate in a factual sense, but isn’t actually newsworthy. The best you can say about it is that it’s information. That’s fine as far as things go. But it’s often information that’s reported as if it were somehow important.
Democrats like ice cream for the sweet, sweet taste.
Kyle Smith has a great example of this: The media’s obsession with Joe Biden eating ice cream. You see, Biden likes ice cream.
Politico even granted anonymity to a source who confided that “he’s a very big ice cream fan.”
Kyle is right that this is a very small example of liberal media bias. Everyone likes ice cream. Biden likes it, too. “He’s a normal Joe—just like me!” The reporters “pushing this association are effectively acting as unpaid promoters of the campaign or politician,” Kyle writes.
But my point here isn’t about liberal media bias—which is real, of course. It’s that this stuff is as newsworthy as the stunning revelation that in moments of quiet repose, dogs occasionally lick their nether regions.
Consider this stunning headline—from a non-liberal media outlet:
“Prince Harry secretly met with military friends after California move, source claims: He ‘has kept in touch.’”
Whoa. A dude stayed in touch with his army buddies. That’s never happened before.
Or consider this headline from another non-liberal organ:
“Mark Levin slams critical race theory and its connection to Marxism, says ideology is here now and ‘in your face’”
This is very close to a dog-bites-man story. I mean, it would be kind of newsy if Mark Levin came out in favor of critical race theory or ridiculed the idea it was related to Marxism. But did anyone think that Mark liked critical race theory in the first place?
And here’s CBS with a hard-hitting account of two girls who have figured out how to make funny voices by talking into a fan:
A lot of this has to do with the perverse incentives of social media and the business models of many media outlets. If you need X amounts of clicks per hour to make your nut, you can’t fill that quota with hard news. Plus, real reporting is expensive and time-consuming. Videos of little girls speaking into fans are easy to come by. Writing up monologues of pundits and podcasts is easy, too. I’m sure there’s a market for it—if there wasn’t, news outlets wouldn’t bother. Though the fact such fare often has to be hyped as something bigger than it actually is itself a kind of false advertising.
Plus, as a guy who tweets more than his share of dog videos, I’m not ideologically opposed to giving people what they want sometimes.
But there’s a downside to all this. Actually, there are several downsides—assuming something can have more than one downside in three-dimensional space. First, it’s not just that we’re drowning in fluff, it’s that everything is being flattened. The human brain has only so much capacity for attention. And every day we’re barraged with fluff like flak over shock-and-awe in Baghdad. The ratio of noise to signal is becoming overwhelming, to the point that it’s hard to figure out what’s truly important because we’ve become accustomed to thinking that whatever grabs our attention must be.
In this context, we fall back on familiar patterns that allow us to make sense of the chatter. I’m trying to avoid the word “narrative” these days, given how overused it is, but I can’t think of a better one. It’s as if editors tell their staff, “Scour the internet for anecdotes that support conclusions our audience has already reached.”
The thing is, it’s a big world. I’ve long argued that you can find examples to support any thesis about popular culture. Want to say that morality is making a comeback? No problem, you’ll be able to find enough wholesome country music songs or Christian dramas to make the case. Want to argue that we’re descending into a cesspool of filth? Easy peasey: Just give me 20 minutes and a web browser.
The old joke in journalism is that three examples equals a trend. There are columnists who write the same column over and over. They wait for news of the right outrage at a public school to pop up on their Google alerts and then churn out the same “Look at what they’re teaching our kids” column they’ve been producing for decades.
I can find three examples of dogs playing the piano by typing “dogs playing the piano” into YouTube. But you know what? That doesn’t mean the statement “dogs can play the piano” is entirely accurate.
Right-wing media shine a bright light on Biden whenever he has a senior moment or a gaffe. Biden confused Syria for Libya! Fine, but where were they when Trump invented a whole African country? Of course, the same works in reverse. Anti-Trump media had a field day every time Trump said something ridiculous, which meant every day was field day. But when Biden says loopy stuff—as he has for decades, by the way—it’s, “Look! He likes ice cream!”
Some of this is a very old model and it’s not always bad. I’ll be honest, there are times when I’m guilty of such things, too. Sometimes when I’m on deadline, or even when I’m not, I’ll see a story that’s a lay-up for me because it’s something I know a lot about and can riff on easily as it confirms my worldview.
But it’s one thing to be confronted by new facts or a fresh event and say, “There they go again,” or, “This is further proof that I’m right.” It’s quite another to manufacture or distort facts to make them fit your narrative. This has been a problem on the left for decades. There’s such a market for stories about hate crimes and campus rape that a cottage industry of hoaxes has emerged to meet the demand. Reward victims with status and attention, and some people will market themselves as victims even if they have to fake it.
But the best example of this stuff these days is on the right.
Consider the stolen election lie. Back in November, many Republicans and conservative commentators said Trump had every right to go to a judge and make his claims—and they were right (even though for most of them this was a cynical effort to avoid pissing off Trump world). Trump lost every significant claim—and there were dozens. Judges he appointed threw his allegations out of court—the Supreme Court all but laughed at him. Sidney Powell’s lawyers would later tell a judge that no rational person would believe what she was saying. State officials conducted legitimate recounts and investigations and found bupkis. At the same time, Bill Barr, a pretty staunch Trump loyalist hailed by Trump fans when he carried water, investigated the claims and found they were all “bullshit.”
This was the response from a lot of people on the right: “You didn’t look hard enough!” Or “You must be in on it!” Or, my favorite, “You must hate Trump” (which is what Trump himself said to Barr).
The narrative is more important than the facts. The conclusion—the election was stolen!—is the one thing that’s not allowed to change. Over at the American Thinker, some guy recently wrote that Biden may not have won California. On OAN the other day, some buffoon talked about the need to execute the traitors—perhaps tens of thousands of them—who helped steal the election.
The supposed upside of the downfall of the traditional media monopolies was that brave truth-tellers would no longer have to go through “gatekeepers” to get their perspective out there. Some of that has happened, and that’s to the good. But at the same time, it’s allowed a lot of charlatans and liars to to pump a bilge-y stew of lies and pernicious nonsense straight into our politics.
This is not just a point about the media, rather it’s about how the crappiness of the media ecosystem is spilling over into real life to the point where it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. The GOP is manufacturing outrage over a select committee to investigate the January 6 riot because it will be partisan. But the whole reason it’s going to be partisan— as in not evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats—is because Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell opposed a non-partisan commission precisely so they could condemn the partisanship of any other inquiry. Once again, Liz Cheney is the villain for wanting to get the facts. Tucker Carlson is floating a conspiracy theory about the NSA targeting him, and McCarthy has appointed Devin Nunes to investigate these supposedly very troubling allegations – when, I should note in defense of the Fox’s news division, even Tucker’s own network is ignoring them.
Facts are no longer in the driver’s seat. Narratives are. And this is as true of our politics as it is of the media, because they’re two sides of the same coin. For instance, the Surfside tower didn’t collapse because of climate change or Ron DeSantis, but the facts are too useful, the images too powerful, for some to resist making such claims.
Consider one last example, not because I think I haven’t made my point, but because I think it’s both funny and illustrative of what I’m talking about.
Trump is a human incarnation of anti-factual narratives. Case in point: His trip to the border this week.
At a meeting to discuss border security, Trump went on a tear about how he “aced” a test designed to tell whether he was cognitively impaired. This is an oldie but a goodie, so I was glad to see him reach deep into his catalog. At the event, Trump called out to Rep. Ronny Jackson, the president’s former physician who had administered the test. Trump said:
"Did I ace it? I aced it. And I'd like to see Biden ace it. He won't ace it."
"He will get the first two. There are 35 questions and the first two or three are pretty easy. They are the animals. This is a lion, a giraffe. When he gets to around 20, he's gonna have a little hard time. I think he's gonna have a hard time with the first few, actually.”
The test doesn’t have 35 questions, merely 10 or 11 tasks (here’s a sample test). And it’s not supposed to take more than 10 minutes.
Boasting that the test was “really hard” doesn’t quite make the point Trump thinks he’s making. If you find a sobriety test “really hard,” that’s not quite the same thing as saying, “I’m sober.” If you struggle to pass a basic cardiovascular test, that’s not the same thing as saying, “I’m in great shape.” And if you say a test designed to determine if you have dementia got “really hard” toward the end, maybe that should be a cause for concern? I mean, if you have to dig deep to successfully repeat the sentence, “The cat always hid under the couch when dogs were in the room,” that’s not something to brag about.
The final—and presumably hardest question—asks if the patient knows the date, place, and city where the test is being administered.
He ran through some of his other greatest hits, about the wall being nearly completed for instance. He said that if he’d been reelected it’d be done in a couple of months. But here are the facts: During his presidency about 373 miles of wall—or fencing—wERE refurbished or replaced. The total amount of new wall where there wasn’t already an existing barrier? 80 miles. That leaves about 1,500 miles of no border.
But I can guarantee you a lot of people believe him, because we’ve reached the point where Trump’s stories about himself are, for millions of people, their most trusted news source.
Various & Sundry
If I can offer a brief commercial: One of the reasons we set up The Dispatch the way we did is that we think people are overloading on all the fluff, narrative formation, and outrage present in the media space. Our business model doesn’t really value web traffic or SEO beyond wanting people to find our stuff. We don’t have pop-up ads, auto-play videos, and 12 trillion links to other things screaming at you to click on them. This is the case for two reasons. One, we think the clickbait model is bad for journalism and the country—monetizing anger and outrage begets more anger and outrage—and two, we think the user experience of such outlets is terrible, even when they do good work and many do. We want to go slower, but to also be worth your time. Obviously I’m biased and self-interested here, but if you think the stuff I’ve described above is a problem, subscribing to The Dispatch is a small—and, I think, rewarding—way to be part of the solution.
Canine update: Both girls got a bath yesterday because after a week of trips to the creek to fend off the heat they were downright briney. Also, I didn’t think it was fair to Ryan Brown, my Dispatch colleague and designated dog (and cat!) sitter, to spend the weekend with stinky dogs. In the absence of the Fair Jessica, they’ve gotten incredibly needy. Add in the thunderstorms, and they’ve basically become appendages. Not much else to report though. Zoe got to hang out with her best friend, Sammy today. And that always makes her happy, as does clearing crows.
And now, the weird stuff