Is There Room for Narrative Complexity in News about Politics?

February 5, 2010
By | 12 Comments

Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly represent opposite poles of television’s entertainment-political complex, a fact that makes the encounters between these two individuals (and the viewer-constituencies they “represent”) all the more fascinating. In Stewart’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor this week, he continued to develop his argument about Fox News’ “preconceived narrative,” but ranged further by noting that Obama himself needed a clear narrative, one that couldn’t so easily be overcome by the toxic narrative crafted by Fox.

When O’Reilly pressed for a list of things that Obama has done “wrong” in his first year, Stewart argues it is the poor job Obama has done of letting Congress (and the lobbyists who fund them) dominate the story. “It allows too much room for different narratives to take hold,” Stewart argues, “for instance, a narrative that might emanate from a news organization of this ilk.” Stewart is simply repeating what others are saying: that Obama has “lost control of his political narrative, his ability to define the story of his presidency on his own terms….Mr. Obama faces a narrative vacuum.”

These arguments about political narratives and the need for clear and simple stories deserve our attention. Jason Mittell has studied what he calls TV’s turn toward “narrative complexity” in the post-network era, especially in the realm of dramatic programming. But if Stewart is right here, news media, citizens, and even politicians seem incapable of dealing with narratives about politics that can adequately capture the complexity of those realities.

But must politics be reduced to simple narratives? How does one simplify that which is so complex? How does a news agency offer citizens a clear narrative, but one that doesn’t reduce the complexity of the situation? And who is the author of that narrative—the news channels or the politicians? Certainly Stewart is correct in noting that Fox and O’Reilly are masters of transforming complex social problems and the agents of government entrusted to address them into the most simple of good guy-bad guy, white hat-black hat tales (with the occasional conspiracy thrown in for the Birchers/Birthers crowd). And as O’Reilly notes, the market for such stories is alive and well (with Fox being ranked recently as the most trusted source of TV news).

But if Mittell is correct—that, by extension, substantial audiences do exist in this day and age for entertainment narratives that work outside such simple molds—where do we look for such similarly complex narratives about politics? Is The Daily Show and The Colbert Report the location for politics for those who enjoy the narratives on HBO (for there is nothing simple about parody and satire)? Or is Stewart simply a master at taking complexity in public life and boiling it down to nuggets of truths without pushing aside that complexity in the process (the way, say, that All in the Family did in a previous era)?

On the other hand, perhaps Stewart is wrong. Instead of a clear or simple narrative, perhaps Fox is actually presenting a very convoluted and complex one. Certainly the performance of ideology that Glenn Beck enacts on his blackboards or the conspiracy theory documentaries he produces are anything but simple (completely illogical is another thing). Perhaps the most simple of narratives about politics comes from CNN and the broadcast networks, with their presentist, “who’s up and who’s down today” narratives that blur the bigger picture of governance, makes politics into a farcical circus act, and treats “news” about politics as a series of penny dreadfuls.

Whichever way, the narrative complexity of entertainment television suggests that some citizen-viewers are capable of engaging with narratives that represent the complexities of social reality—much more so than the narratives we currently find in the realm of television news. Sadly, I don’t expect cable or broadcast news to embrace that complexity anytime soon. For viewers of my ideological ilk, fake news may have to suffice.

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12 Responses to “ Is There Room for Narrative Complexity in News about Politics? ”

  1. Jason Mittell on February 5, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    Jeff – I want to believe that complexity has a place in political narratives (although not in a temporal-jumping, parallel universe style of storytelling!). But I feel like one of the chief ways that narrative complexity works is that it requires a sense of a guiding hand telling us the story – hence the reason we listen to writer podcasts, commentaries, interviews, etc. The complexity of real life feels too haphazard to be authored.

    The storytelling in journalism is more about rendering the complex in straightforward ways, and I can’t fathom how the norms could be recast into more serialized and multi-protagonist models. So we’re left with The Wire as the exemplar for how to narrate complex social realities, via fiction.

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 5, 2010 at 2:34 PM

      I do realize that what you and others are describing in the realm of fictional narrative probably shouldn’t be extrapolated and superimposed onto other genres. With that said, I guess I am wondering if the core concept of narrative complexity might not still have value in this situation (given this running discourse about political narratives). For of course, Stewart IS arguing that Fox has done just that–provided a “guiding hand” that tells a very clear story that publics want to hear. I think if we had true and unfettered access and honesty from Roger Ailes, we might see this news auteur (and I mean that will all seriousness) at work. And similarly with political narratives crafted by politicians. Read any kiss-and-tell book or exposes after they leave office (from Selling of the President to On Bended Knee and others) and you see similar guiding hands, even if half the time they want to take credit for successes that might be luck or random.

      Of course, you are correct in noting that real life is complex and haphazard and much more difficult to control than can be done by the writers of Lost. But as all students of media know, these writers also have to deal with lots of issues thrown at them that they, as storytellers, might not wish would interfere with the reality they desire to create.

      But back to the central point: I think we would do well to pay attention to the guiding hands of political narratives in the realm of news and public affairs. There is nothing neutral about Fox, Comedy Central, or even CNN in how they go about the business of crafting their stories as branded networks. And just as the realities of real life Baltimore (Sheila Dixon, Baltimore Sun, et al.) got planted right in the middle of The Wire’s complex narrative, we would be foolish not to see that the realities of the nation are the central ingredients for the construction of simple or complext news narratives.

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 6, 2010 at 9:19 AM

      I know you were kidding about parallel universes as well, but I thought the lead paragraph of the NYTimes piece linked to here captures the real-life dilemma of “both/and” quite well:

      “Yes, he’s a liberal, except when he’s not. He’s antiwar, except for the one he’s escalating. He’s for bailouts, but wants to rein in the banks. He’s concentrating ever-more power in the West Wing, except when he’s being overly deferential to Congress. He’s cool, except when he’s fighting-hot. In a world that presents so many fast-moving and intractable problems, nuance, flexibility, pragmatism — even a full range of human emotions — are no doubt good things….Is it possible to embrace complexity in a political and media culture that demands simple themes and promotes conflict?”

      For this author, the problem resides in Obama as storyteller. I wonder if the problem doesn’t reside elsewhere. Surely all publics desire mythical story lines for their leaders (Kennedy, Reagan, Stalin), but does the entirety of our citizenry have to have narratives equivalent to Julia, Marcus Welby, M.D., or The Rockford Files? I guess I expect more in the post-network era.

  2. Kelli Marshall on February 5, 2010 at 2:09 PM

    As a longtime fan/teacher of THE DAILY SHOW and satire, I really appreciate this post and the questions it poses.

    You ask whether THE DAILY SHOW and THE COLBERT REPORT are the places “for politics for those who enjoy the narratives on HBO (for there is nothing simple about parody and satire)?” I would say unequivocally yes.

    Many of the shows on HBO and Showtime (as well as LOST in some ways) read as somewhat elitist. Their layered plots and complex characterization as well as their unconventional and controversial subject matter (e.g., polygamy, soccer moms who sell weed, a lovable serial killer, four women who enjoy sex) attract a certain, I would guess, educated and moderately well-off audience. (Unfortunately, I can’t find any demographic info on those who subscribe HBO, etc.)

    THE DAILY SHOW and COLBERT also cater to the informed; after all, satire, both as a definition and a literary genre, is somewhat elitist. As such, these shows, like HBO’s (I presume), attract educated and moderately well-off audiences. Specifically, viewers of Stewart and Colbert are roughly 35, their average income is $67,000, and they are 78% more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college education (Nielson Media Research).

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how or if the two audiences, those of HBO and those of Stewart/Colbert, actually overlap…

    PS. Have you thought to add this Plug-in to your site so that commenters may be notified when someone has reacted to their remarks? http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/subscribe-to-comments/

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 5, 2010 at 2:43 PM

      Well, I almost wrote (but removed) something similar–wouldn’t it be interesting to see if viewers of Fox News and According to Jim overlapped as well! :-)

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 5, 2010 at 2:50 PM

      There is a subscribe tab at the very top. Is this the same thing?

      • Kelli Marshall on February 5, 2010 at 2:54 PM

        That’s just for the RSS feed, I think. This plug-in (and others like it) puts a little tick box at the end of each post. You should find one on the bottom of my most recent blog post: http://kellimarshall.net/unmuzzledthoughts/television/miss-america

        • Liz Ellcessor on February 5, 2010 at 7:26 PM

          Thanks for the suggestion, Kelli!

          • Lindsay H. Garrison on February 5, 2010 at 7:43 PM

            We should have the option now to subscribe to comments now. Thanks all!

          • Kelli Marshall on February 6, 2010 at 8:34 AM

            Yippee! Glad to help…

  3. Stewart Viscarro on August 12, 2010 at 6:28 AM

    An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.