A Narrative Is a Narrative Isn't a Narrative


The Washington Post's Jason Horowitz this weekend had a sharp piece rightly criticizing pundits and politicians alike for their obsession over Barack Obama's "narrative." Excerpt:

"So much of the coverage and commentary has to do with the narrative, stagecraft, the political implications of what he is doing," said David Axelrod, Obama's special adviser for narrative, stagecraft and the political implications of what the president is doing. "When you are president of the United States, the most important thing is that you cope with the disaster." Not, that is, the story line of the disaster.

Imperfect messenger though he is, Axelrod has a point. The BP oil spill has largely been treated as the latest plot twist in the Obama epic. The plume of crude rising from the seabed is not only the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, darkening the gulf and thousands of lives and pervading the nation with a sense of helplessness, it is a metaphor for Obama's loss of control, a revealing moment to study our protagonist. Will he feel the seafarer's pain? Will he shake with fury? Will he weep tears into the salty sea? Sing to me, Muse, of the wrath of Washington's Achilles. […]

In this particularly meta moment, the overarching Obama story line hovers a level above events, distracting from the disaster in the gulf, glossing over the question of whether the government's concrete actions are sufficient, removing readers and viewers and listeners from reality.

The article, which includes some thoughtful interviews and quote-spelunking and is well worth reading in full, is nonetheless too easy on the media, in my opinion. Narrative obsession is what happens when facts and public policies are too hard to sort through. Meta is an abdication of micro, and a perpetuator of lazy generalizations and outright falsehoods, for which we all suffer.

Hat tip to Raymond C. Eckhart. I wrote about Obama's "narrative" narrative in March.