Last week’s big news was the historic and largely unexpected gains in Congress by a party holding the presidency. The story leading up to the election was of a divided electorate, toss-up races that could fall either way and localized elections being decided on parochial issues. By Wednesday morning, the story had changed though.

Paul Wong
Peter Cunniffe

Now it was a national election, a ringing endorsement of the campaigner-in-chief and an electorate that had become decidedly Republican. Suddenly what the Democratic Party had been doing – which few had previously raised any warning signals about – was tisk tisked by all as terrible strategy. Of course, there are many explanations for why elections turn out the way they do. A few days earlier Democrats were doing much better in the polls than they were right before election day and the election probably would have turned out quite differently depending on the exact date it was held. Republican boosters certainly desired and promoted this outcome, but the consensus, even among them, was far more uncertain. But now, according to the newly hatched conventional wisdom, spouted with such harrumphing surety by the reporter/pundits, we know exactly what happened. Democrats didn’t advance a credible alternative message and got mauled by a president who appealed to voters fearful of an uncertain world and trusting of someone who was at least sure about what he wanted to do.

The other notable political story of the past few weeks was the memorial service for the late senator Paul Wellstone. Not many people watched it outside of Minnesota; the only place you could have caught it was C-SPAN. I did see it and what I remember most about it was the family members and friends of Wellstone staffers who had died with him standing up and telling stories about their lives. I certainly remember the two speakers who exhorted the crowd to help elect Democrats, but that was hardly the substance of the event. The conservative press turned it into a political story though. And within days, the service was portrayed in the national news as nothing but a pep rally; just an example of how crassly Democrats will exploit anything to win. Driven by the Fox News/Wall Street Journal axis, the conservative spin was soon how the event was generally understood.

These two stories make clear that news conveys a lot more than just what happened. When an anchor or a commentator tells their audience about something, they tell a story. Raw facts can be boring and sometimes just plain incomprehensible without context so, to keep people interested, they are packaged in a story-line for easier digestion. This is so common that we hardly ever make note of it, but how a story is told has a substantial effect on what people take away from it.

There are different ways to tell these stories. Most news organizations – as the post-election promotion of the “Democrat’s had no message” story-line and the earlier “divided electorate” story-line demonstrate – try to do this by wrapping a plausible, often fairly simplistic, and widely accepted explanation around the facts. Another way, as the Wellstone story highlights, is for news organizations to deliberately give meanings they choose to events; to try to create the widely accepted interpretation that others will adopt. The difference is easy to miss, but isn’t at all subtle.

The election story tried to explain what happened. In the Wellstone story, pieces of an event were discussed in isolation from the whole to create a politically useful caricature. This has been a complaint of conservatives for years; that the media distort everything they do. But conservatives dominate news spinning these days. An entire news channel devoted to promoting the conservative take on everything – whose anchors always look like they’re about to burst into laughter when they say, “fair and balanced” – talk radio dominance, private and industry funded foundations churning out conservative pseudo-scholarship and an expansive right wing publishing sector give incredible weight to their spin on any event. Not to mention the equal time conservatives are given in regular news outlets to voice their views. Do liberals spin news like this? For whatever reason (lack of money, nagging ethical concerns) they have never reached that level, but they do as much as they can. News really is biased. Most often the bias is toward simplistic explanations that discount or just ignore other possibilities.

Frequently though, the stories aren’t just trying to explain, but trying to promote; pushing a view in hopes that other news outlets and the public will buy into it. This hardly comports with journalistic ethics, but the usefulness of these methods is clear and they will only grow. Just remember that things are seldom as simple as they sound and that news stories do far more than just report the news.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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