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How The Narrative Is Made

Michael Cieply, who left The New York Times this summer after 12 years as a reporter and editor there, reflects on why the newspaper got the Trump story so wrong:

For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always — or at least for many decades — been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”

It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?”

The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”

Er, wow. This is like some right-winger’s parody of what the NYT is like. But there it is, from an insider.
Steve Sailer writes of this story

You can see this in agenda-driven stuff like World War T and the Military / Campus Rape Culture hysterics. These are not news, they are planned campaigns of psychological warfare.

Ain’t that the truth. It’s funny: I read the Times in part to learn about the world, but mostly to learn about the Narrative, and have done for years. I mean, I read the paper for the same reason Kremlinologists in the old days would have pored over paragraphs in Pravda: not for a picture of the Soviet Union as it actually was, but for a picture of the Soviet Union as its ruling elites wanted to think of it, or at least wanted everyone else to think of it.

I’m not being snarky or facetious here. I smile, with Cieply, at the Times‘s ridiculously high self-regard, captured in that anonymous quote. Most people in my part of the world don’t know or care what the Times thinks about anything. But there’s more truth in that editor’s words than I wish there were. The mass media that people in my part of the world do consume — not just news media, but entertainment media — is driven by what appears in the Times, or at least by people who share the same basic mindset as Times editors.

Anyway, to the extent that what Cieply reports about the Times is true — that it’s an editor-driven newspaper — isn’t it obvious how foolish it is to think that you can report accurately on a country as big and as diverse as this one from a Manhattan mothership?

Back in the 1980s, a Dutch friend who had just finished his mandatory military service told me that he didn’t fear Warsaw Pact forces nearly as much as he did before serving. How come? I asked. Because, he said, NATO trains its troops to think for themselves, and to be creative on the battlefield, when conditions change. The Warsaw Pact commanders don’t trust their soldiers. Those guys don’t know what to do without orders from on top. They’re totally dependent on superiors who are in some cases far removed from the battlefield to know what to do next.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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