The Narrative Imperative and the Flies That Make Up the News

October 9, 2020 Updated: October 9, 2020

Commentary

Here’s the news of this year’s election campaign: Both candidates in the vice-presidential debate stuck to their respective narratives. And the media stuck to theirs.

Not exactly news, is it?

But it’s pretty much the same every day, now that narrative has superseded news, both in the media and in politics, which are increasingly indistinguishable from each other.

“Narrative,” of course, means story, and “story,” colloquially, used to be another, softer name for lie. “Now, Jimmy, don’t tell stories,” said Grandma. Long stories, called novels, used to be suspect to—and often condemned by—decent, God-fearing folk, for the same reason: because they were made-up stories. Lies.

Go a little further back, and medieval poets once had to shield themselves from the charge of lying by pretending that they were describing a dream they had had, or else they claimed that they were only repeating a (presumptively true) story that had been told by some ancient author, or auctor—the word from which both the modern words author and authority are derived.

Nowadays, many if not most of the stories that the media tell are told only on their own authority, or on that of anonymous sources who are usually anonymous so as to shield from public attention their own motivations, personal or political, for having made them up.

Honorary Truth

It is expected that the public utterances of politicians and journalists alike will be a mixture of truth and these kinds of stories that may never have happened but that fit the appropriate narrative so well that they are granted by our equally anonymous cultural arbiters a kind of honorary truth.

Several such stories were alluded to by Kamala Harris in Wednesday’s debate. There was the one about the Russian “bounties” on American soldiers in Afghanistan and President Trump’s alleged indifference to it and unwillingness to take it up with President Putin.

Then there was the one about President Trump’s alleged disrespect to America’s war dead, whom he was said by anonymous sources to have called “suckers” and “losers” and about whom he supposedly asked, “what was in it for them?”

And then there was the grand-daddy of all the stories told against President Trump and the one that lay behind Chris Wallace’s insulting insinuation, in last week’s debate that he was a “white supremacist”—that after the riot in Charlottesville in 2017 he had called members of the KKK and neo-Nazis “very fine people.”

This, said Senator Harris, was the reason Joe Biden had decided to run against Donald Trump for the highest office in the land.

Joe Biden had said it too, but it may be that he is half the time away with the fairies (as the English like to say) and doesn’t know that this is a lie.

It is not possible for Senator Harris, or moderator Susan Page, or anyone else who is compos mentis not to know it.

At the time the President made his remark about the “very fine people on both sides” he also made it clear he was talking about demonstrators for and against a statue of Robert E. Lee, and he specifically excluded from that description the white supremacists.

“I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists,” he said.

But it fit the Democrat and the media narrative to believe that he had said, and to keep repeating all the way to the election that he had said, precisely what he had not said.

No Correction

When I pointed out to a friend of mine that Vice President Biden and Senator Harris and the media were all blatantly lying about this, he agreed that this was the case but added: “You have to admit, though, that he was unwise to have said it”—i.e., to have said that there were very fine people on both sides.

Unwise to have said it! In other words, he should have known that a hostile media would join the Democratic propaganda machine in distorting his words so as to make him out to have said the opposite of what he actually said? On that basis he’s got to be unwise to say anything at all.

The implication is that, once this story was incorporated into the Biden-Harris narrative, by a kind of polite fiction agreed with the media and the wider political culture there’s nothing that can be done to correct it anymore. Therefore, it doesn’t count as a lie.

The rule seems to be that the Biden campaign (but not President Trump’s!) are entitled to their narrative, irrespective of its truth or falsity, just as the media themselves are, and that narrative is no longer subject to correction in debate or by any other means.

In retrospect it begins to seem as if blowing up the whole charade was the best thing President Trump could have done in the last debate.

Anyway, the inviolate narrative is the reason why there was no news on the morning after the vice presidential debate. Both sides continued to say what they have been saying and will continue to say, so that reporters of “news” are reduced to noticing, and trying to make a scandal of, the fact that there was a fly in Vice President Pence’s hair at one point during the debate.

By the way. This no-news news coincided with a couple of pieces of real news, or what ought to have been real news. For instance, declassified CIA documents show that Hillary Clinton personally arranged for the fabrication, in cooperation with James Comey’s FBI, of the whole Russian “collusion” hoax, which was virtually the whole of the media’s narrative during the first three years of the Trump presidency.

But that kind of spectacular correction could never be part of the narrative now, for obvious reasons. Not now that the big scandal of the day is the fly in Mike Pence’s hair, capitalized on by the Biden campaign with fly-swatters inscribed with the legend “Truth over flies.”

It’s an allusion, in case you didn’t know it, to their slogan: “Truth over lies”—which is an even better joke, if only their narrative could admit it.

James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The author of “Honor: A History,” he is a movie critic for the American Spectator and the media critic for the New Criterion.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.