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.