July 12, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The press corps’ teleological storytelling is a problem
It's a kind of lying.
Something that has not gotten the attention it deserves, according to my friend Hussein Ibish, is the choice made after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sweeping international support of that fledgling democracy. That choice was between inflation and unemployment.
The Russian invasion is the principal reason gas prices soared last month. The invasion also contributed to (in addition to the pandemic’s still robust effect on global supply-chains) the rates of inflation felt around the world. Joe Biden did say inflation could be the cost of democracy, but he didn’t say his administration had been, from the beginning, taking the side of workers, jobs and wages.
The Narrative is this: the Democrats are heading for disaster in the fall. Every midterm in the modern era has seen one or both chambers of the Congress flip against the party in control of the White House. So every news item is being seen through the lens of The Narrative. This will be done even though such goal-obsessed journalism is bosh.
Problem is, the president and the Democrats are bad at storytelling. So that choice between inflation and unemployment was never adequately explained, Hussein said. Instead, the Biden administration merely mentioned in “very narrow elite settings when the choice should have been explained more bluntly. ‘Yeah, brace yourselves because there may be inflation, because we put all of our attention on saving your jobs.’ That’s a good argument, but Biden didn’t do it.”
I’m not sure any story from the White House would matter.
The news that fits
Recent months have seen headline after headline about the astounding price of gas. The press corps’ focus on prices got so obsessive the commentariat began not just wondering but saying outright that the president’s sagging approval rating would surely bring down his party in an election year that already favors the GOP.
During all this time, the unemployment rate tumbled downward (it’s now at 3.6 percent), even as businesses struggled to find labor. Now, the price of gas is falling – has been for the last 26 days. Yet we’re unlikely to see headline after headline about cheaper gas. We’re unlikely to see the president get any credit. Credit does not fit into The Narrative. Anything that doesn’t fit may as well be make-believe.
That Narrative is this: the Democrats are heading for disaster in the fall. Every midterm in the modern era has seen one or both chambers of the Congress flip against the party in control of the White House. So every news item is being seen through the lens of The Narrative. This will be done even though such goal-obsessed journalism is bosh.
As I said yesterday, the next presidential election is 848 (well, now 847) days away. It does not matter what anyone anywhere thinks right now of the incumbent’s job performance, because whatever they said will be forgotten by the time we get to November 5, 2024.
Even so, the Times reported Monday that 64 percent of Democratic voters would rather someone else run as the party’s standard-bearer the next time around, according to its most recent opinion survey.
That’s not going to happen. As I said, the next presidential election is more than 845 days away. The Times should be embarrassed. But what’s a little humiliation compared to loyalty to The Narrative?
Well, for one thing, it’s teleological.
“Teleology” is a term historians think about. They aim to get the chain of causality right: this happened, which caused this to happen, which caused this – and so on. This storytelling is hard, though. It’s easier (and more palatable?) to start at the end and work backwards.
The problem with teleological storytelling, however, is that it risks giving the impression that the consequences of human affairs – the sum total of all decisions made at the time they were made – are inevitable, as if they unfolded according to a plan of divine origin.
They are not inevitable.
God is as uncertain as the rest of us. Progress does not happen on its own, nor does time move forward morally. History is the slo-mo accretion of finite causalities. Nothing inevitable about that. To suggest otherwise, as journalists do, is, well – it’s not the truth.
The Washington press corps should be mindful of such teleological temptations, but it probably won’t. Every news item cropping up today and every day on the way to the midterms will be seen through the lens of The Narrative, whose conclusion has been foreordained. Reporters can’t know the future. Yet they are predicting it, then reverse engineering coverage according to an end point no one can foresee.
News that does not fit – falling gas prices, say, or the historically low rate of unemployment, something all presidents covet – may muddy the narrative, might even upend it, but that doesn’t matter. The midterms are made a fetish. Reporters will ignore anything that doesn’t fit as aggressively as they obsess over everything that does.
That’s not just bad journalism.
That’s a kind of lying.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.