Beware the Story

I guess we all know now that news as a Western tradition of informing the public is now dead.  To be honest, it has been on life support since the 1890’s.  Yellow Journalism was the title given to the media blitz of the late 1890’s that blurred advertising and information.  The public in New York City, Chicago, and other big cities feared the power of Spain as it crushed a Cuban revolt.  The two newspaper moguls, Pulitzer and Hearst, battled each other with outrageous headlines meant to tempt readers to spend on a newspaper.  The public print war did more than make the newspapers millions of dollars, it pushed readers to demand a real war against Spain when the USS Maine blew up off the coast of Cuba in 1898.  The media started a war… this would not be the last time.

People at the time did not need anyone to tell them that the media had overplayed its hand for the sake of profits.  But the fact that outrageous headlines won readers taught the press that information was not as lucrative as scandal and fear.  By the late 1880’s writers had stumbled on the formula that would define the American media throughout the 20th century – stories about the abuse of power made newspaper owners fabulously wealthy.  A new breed of writers, which President Teddy Roosevelt labeled Muckrakers, sharpened their prose while they developed innovative investigative practices.  To be fair, scandal and abuse were not difficult to find.  Large monopolies such as Standard Oil and US Steel provided journalists with ample fodder for targeted articles that drew attention to unethical business practices.  But the increased interest in the media also made media outlets rich and powerful.

The American press is now at the height of its power because it has unleashed the awesome energy of the story.  Rather than merely inform readers so that they can make good decisions, the media has mastered the ability of setting information in a well-crafted story that validates a plot, not facts.  Readers/viewers become loyal to stories which makes them dedicated viewers of ads that enrich media companies.  A narrative that can explain the facts of a fast-paced world becomes addictive to the public which then motivates writers.  To feed hungry readers writers seek to tell the story that appeals to themselves and their readers.  They select facts then arrange them into a narrative that makes disagreement look idiotic.  Rather than reading news and then having to think – the media has done and completed all of the thinking.  Our duty is to agree.  The story, you see, is both judge and executioner.  Worse yet, readers/viewers listen to only one narrative and then begin to see the whole world as the unfolding of a single story, regardless of how many people do not see things that way.  In the end narrow minded writers force facts into ever tighter scripts.  This power has a deadly consequence – people who do not believe the story are considered irrational or, worse, evil; so much for informing thinking readers.  All hail the story we tell; down with the idiots who don’t agree.

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