Sunday, November 06, 2005

Everyone Loves A Good Story

There's a pretty cool piece in today's NYT about the importance of compelling storylines in the creation of news items and propaganda. People pay more attention to strands of news when they're presented as part of a larger tapestry that connects disparate events over time and thereby ameliorates some of the tensions of constant information overload. One of today's dominant news narratives concerns questions of manipulated intelligence during the sale of the Iraq war, and it encompasses the Plame leak case, the Downing Street memo, the Libby indictment, and the recent revelation that the administration was warned that one major source of prewar intelligence was lying:

Indeed, part of the resonance of the leak investigation is that it goes back to the fierce debate over the validity of prewar intelligence about Saddam Hussein that led to a protracted and increasingly unpopular and costly conflict with no clear end in sight. The intrigue over who said what, and when, and why, and to whom about Ms. Wilson echoes the intrigue about the activities of one of the most secretive presidential administrations of modern times.

In other words, it's a good storyline.

The twist is that this particular story apparently sprang from the administration's fevered efforts in the summer of 2003 to keep control of its case that the Iraq war was right and necessary, and to discredit swiftly any critic who might tell a different tale.

Other examples of political narratives might include Watergate, Clinton/Lewinsky, the War on Terror/Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, and the liberal/conservative 'culture wars.' Like in the movies, the overarching story and its constituent links don't need to be particularly relevant--just interesting. That may be part of why the GOP's been winning so handily at the ballot box in recent years--the mere presence of a passably cohesive and affirmative world view offers a significant advantage if the opposition party lacks a viable alternative. But when the story gets away from its spinners, it can turn against them, just as the broad-based support behind the Iraq war at its onset has today metamorphosed into an opposed public majority and mounting evidence of intelligence manipulation. And the rise of blogs, 24-hour cable news networks, and instant information via Google is making it increasingly difficult for the entrenched powers-that-be to manage what people know and how political information is framed.

Later in the article, Daniel Schorr offers an optimistic take on the staggering speed at which information travels nowadays, arguing that new technologies have democratized the power to control news:
"And [John F. Kennedy] said: 'We're going to live in a different world when America can see on the same day what's happening in Europe. We've lost our ability to sit, and have time, and have an explanation to go with events.' I'm not sure he foresaw the day of CNN live all the time, but he did foresee that getting news on the air faster than we used to would drive them to make policy faster, or write statements, before they had thought them through. A lot of government's attention these days is focused on what do you say right away."

Mr. Schorr added: "I'm delighted about it myself, because I'm no longer primarily a television person. I love seeing that the people who exercised that absolute control have lost it, thanks to technology."

The decentralization of information control is definitely a positive development, but I don't know that it has exerted a significant effect on the speed at which policy is created. The difference between the public hearing about a major event within a day of its occurrence (in the 1960s) and a few minutes (today) isn't large enough to affect legislation, though Schorr does have a point that governments now have less time to write immediate statements in response. The primary driving forces behind rushed, shoddy policy are an incompetent Congress and the people that elect its representatives. Perhaps democracy itself shares part of the blame: in a world where food, entertainment, and interpersonal contact can all be had more or less instantaneously, maybe we as citizens are unreasonably burdening our leaders with the same standard of celerity.