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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 [1]:

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 [2]

You can see this in agenda-driven stuff like World War T [3] 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.

change_me

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.

Hmm…

42 Comments (Open | Close)

42 Comments To "How The Narrative Is Made"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 11, 2016 @ 5:59 am

As a young reporter, a few days into my job at a city newspaper, I was taken aback when our managing editor stood before the large window in the news room, lookng out on the city, arms akimbo, and declared, “I tell people what to think.”

When the cognitive dissonance reaches critical mass, as it just has, people who believed the propaganda these media mandarins have pumped into them, melt down when they are confronted close up with the alternate of reality.

All the news that fits … The Narrative.

#2 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On November 11, 2016 @ 6:04 am

They think they can set the agenda and suddenly the agenda set upon them.

#3 Comment By MikeCLT On November 11, 2016 @ 6:25 am

Propaganda not news. Do liberals realize how much they are being manipulated?

#4 Comment By Wes On November 11, 2016 @ 6:36 am

I imagine this is similar in television newsrooms. For instance yesterday: on the same day video was released of a mob beatdown of an alleged Trump supporter and of mob of protesters yelling obscenities at police while bullying their way through the streets, ABC evening news decided to lead with white junior high kids chanting ‘build that wall’ in a cafeteria and another recorded saying ‘white power’ while strolling through a school hallway (either of which could have been staged to make Trump supporters look dumb)

My wife urges me that people are on to their game, but you’ve already had a couple commenters mention the ABC news report so I revert back to my thinking that easily propagandized people really do believe the riff faff is all on the other side. What is clear is that television news continues their selective attempt to stoke racial grievances at best and at worst violence.

#5 Comment By Hope On November 11, 2016 @ 6:38 am

So assuming this is the case (and not some guy who left the NYT grinding an axe…it’s hard not to cynical about EVERYTHING right now), what sources can we read to get the ‘real’ truth? I’m finding myself distrusting all of them.

#6 Comment By Colonel Blimp On November 11, 2016 @ 6:46 am

The mentality of the New York Times is only one facet of the worldview of those with established power in the West. Is ‘liberal’ really the most accurate word? I think ‘progressive’ is closer to the mark because it is the all-consuming urge to define and enforce ‘progress’ that marks out this religious worldview. Make no mistake, this is a religion, one that supplants the voice from the burning bush with the march of history to an man-made Promethean paradise free from material constraints, religious dogmas, and the limitations of localised forms of identity – essentially the ascendancy of the human ego over space and time.

What is less recognised is the extent to which most forms of political thought today are ‘progressive’, no matter whether they have ‘right’ or ‘left’ labels. The believers all regard their task as the moulding of a radiant future and have a greater or lesser disdain for tradition and history. The more zealous believers credit themselves with almost sacerdotal power to change reality itself, like priests at the divine liturgy.

Do I exaggerate? No I don’t, and Karl Rove’s words to Ron Suskind show I don’t. The words are familiar enough but still stunning: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.

The speaker was talking about the Bush administration, but he could just as easily be someone in the Obama White House, GOP main office, the Pentagon, Wall Street etc, Harvard Yard etc. Once you accept that those at the top think abstract idealism has more substance than reality, that the real world has no integrity of its own and that it is essentially plastic, so much makes sense. Of course they would unleash the fires of Hades on the Arab world to purify it for the arrival of Jeffersonian democracy! Of course they would let the usurers off the leash, destroy local economies, gut viable industries and use mass migration as an economic weapon against the working class because the ‘invisible hand’ demands relentless GDP expansion at all costs. Of course they would turn universities into a ludicrous curdling of corporate finishing schools and PC agitprop re-education centres. And of course they look upon those who resist with incomprehension and rage because only the incorrigibly stupid or evil can stand against the true and only heaven.

#7 Comment By Donald On November 11, 2016 @ 7:01 am

That is also the left wing view of the NYT. On foreign policy, the NYT usually functions as a fourth wing of the government. Mildly critical sometimes, but they stick pretty close to the DC narrative. They were instrumental in pushing stories that supported the Iraq invasion and that was not an aberration.

#8 Comment By RealAlan On November 11, 2016 @ 7:31 am

Did you see the headline that made the NYT in at least some editions: “DEMOCRATS, STUDENTS AND FOREIGN ALLIES FACE THE REALITY OF A TRUMP PRESIDENCY.” That’s not from a right-wing parody site. That’s a real headline. On Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough and guest Mark Halperin held it up for all to see, in incredulity. Said Mika Brzezinzki: “It’s all about them”.

You can see the video embedded in a story on Hot Air entitles “NYT’s world ends — women, students, people abroad hardest hit.”

Eventually on the digital election sanity or journalistic instinct prevailed and the headline during parts of Wednesday became something like “ESTABLISHMENT ROCKED AT TRUMP VICTORY”.

#9 Comment By RealAlan On November 11, 2016 @ 7:36 am

“digitsal edition” not “digital election”.

#10 Comment By collin On November 11, 2016 @ 7:39 am

How about noting cable news and Fox here? Trump doesn’t win the Primary without all the cutaways to live feeds of his rallies. It is coming out that Primary debate questions were leaked to Trump. In reality, one reason the cable news loved Trump is their ratings went up so much.

So unfortunately, it will be interesting to watch whether NYT and Post national subscriptions go up the next few months. It be profitable during the Trump term to set a narrative. Liberal news sites are stating their contributions have gone significantly up the last week.

#11 Comment By Coleman On November 11, 2016 @ 8:20 am

The mind-boggling thing is those liberals who are now doubling-down on “shaping the narrative,” completely oblivious to the fact that the media’s transparent narrative-shaping did more than anything else to undermine the public faith in the mainstream media. See, for example, [4], or [5]. The problem, you see, is that the media didn’t do enough to bury the Clinton email stories, and failed to shape a positive narrative for her, even though they did an OK job of shaping a negative narrative for Trump. The blindness of these people…

#12 Comment By Liam On November 11, 2016 @ 8:36 am

In other words, “The Gray Lady considers how She considers Herself” . . . .

#13 Comment By Bernie On November 11, 2016 @ 9:01 am

“…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?”

Well said, Rod. One of the realities this election has unearthed for perhaps millions of previously unaware Americans is the depth of corruption in the media, existing on both the left and the right. It’s one thing when a listener or reader is aware of an “opinion piece” or personal commentary; it’s quite another when that which poses as “hard news” deliberately dismisses vigorous investigation of the facts and a balanced perspective. The NYT is a propaganda vehicle.

#14 Comment By mrscracker On November 11, 2016 @ 9:18 am

I don’t read the NYT but the Washington Post was totally agenda led in reporting the election campaign.Embarrassingly so. It was so lopsided against Trump,( who is not my hero), that it became ridiculous.

#15 Comment By Chris 1 On November 11, 2016 @ 9:41 am

The same is true at Washington Post. At one point I started discounting everything they wrote about the election, it was all so manifestly slanted.

I’m sure they thought they were working to save America from an existential threat (and as much as I hope I’m incorrect, I’m not that optimistic that Trump can be anyone other than the thin-skinned self-serving hustler he’s always been) that they overlooked Hillary’s manifest weaknesses…over and over again.

#16 Comment By JamesP On November 11, 2016 @ 10:00 am

The New York Times: All the news that fits.

What a devilish rag.

#17 Comment By Reader On November 11, 2016 @ 10:38 am

The funny thing is, their narrative about Hillary’s inevitability may be what led to so many Dem voters not going to the polls for her. They thought their votes wouldn’t be needed. Hoist by their own petard.

#18 Comment By lancelot lamar On November 11, 2016 @ 10:52 am

I think this has always been true about Big Media, it’s just that now they can’t hide their corruption and group-think anymore. Wikileaks did us all a favor in actually proving the collusion between the Democrats and big media that was evident all along.

The result of the election clearly shows that most people are well aware that the media is not reporting at all, but pushing a narrative that they have just made up to suit themselves and their interests. Like you, they may pay partial attention to see what the media lords are trying to sell today, but they know it is all partisan and bogus.

And we the people also know how to read or watch it all for free, like I do, with cache cleaners and ad-block, to help drive them into bankruptcy too.

(I feel bad about doing this only with The Guardian, which although left-wing, is honest about it, and has some original ideas, good writing, and real reporting at times.)

But as for the NY Times and the rest, I just read, smile at their delusions and at their quarterly declines in earnings. Truly, on election night did anyone watch CBS, NBC, or ABC? Or even know what was going on there? There world is dying, and good riddance too.

#19 Comment By Charles Cosimano On November 11, 2016 @ 11:43 am

The NYT has been a national joke for a long time but no one in the media realized it. The media has, for decades, been like a bunch of stockbrokers on a desert island thinking they were becoming rich by trading their hats back and forth. This election pointed to how ignored they have really been and that no one really cares what the NYT says about much of anything.

The story of your Dutch friend reminds me of a story about the end of the Cold War when we actually had a sort of de-facto alliance with Russia and sent troops to train the former Red Army in modern warfare. Turns out they needed it. One of our officers came back and said, in an interview, “We could not believe that we were ever actually afraid of them.”

#20 Comment By steveb On November 11, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

It will be interesting to see what happens now that Rodger Ailes is no longer driving that daily narrative down to the reporters and commentators at large. Will they actually start to cover reality or just continue to parrot the party line? Only time will tell, but I am not optimistic for any real reform or return to truly objective news coverage.

#21 Comment By Old West On November 11, 2016 @ 12:29 pm

“I read the Times in part to learn about the world, but mostly to learn about the Narrative, and have done for years.”

This reminds me of Oliver North’s quip from back in the 80s: “Every morning I read the Bible and the Washington Post — that way I can know what both sides are thinking.”

#22 Comment By Skip On November 11, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

Even more ridiculous is that TV programs like The Daily Show do not have even one pro-Trump person or even a conservative working there to tell the rest of them that non-liberals exist.

#23 Comment By Lee Podles On November 11, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

Isn’t the motto of the New York Times: “All the news that fits”?

#24 Comment By connecticut farmer On November 11, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

Breaking news: The NY Times is out of touch.

Shocking!

Up next: Did you know that they actually GAMBLE in those casinos?

#25 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 11, 2016 @ 2:07 pm

“It is coming out that Primary debate questions were leaked to Trump.”

Megyn Kelly, whose book these rumors are attributed to, has tweeted that she said no such thing in or out of her book, has no knowledge of such, and that as far as she knows it is untrue.

Just because you wish it were true isn’t the same thing as it being true. What-about-ism is always weak argumentation, but a dose of this false example is just deflection through mendacity.

Like the falsehoods I heard that “Colin Powell did exactly the same thing with his own private email server.” No. And he had his own problems with propagating lies to manipulate the country into war with Iraq that had neither WMD or anything to do with 9-11, so that is pretty thin “truthiness” gruel.

#26 Comment By Kitty Mama On November 11, 2016 @ 2:40 pm

The next-to-best part about election night was watching Rachel Maddow and Bryan Williams come very close to having nervous breakdowns during their coverage on MSNBC.

#27 Comment By Chatterbot On November 11, 2016 @ 3:02 pm

Re comment #1, Fred.

It’s years later now, you can name that paper and editor. Such comments have a bit more punch when firmly grounded.

#28 Comment By pj On November 11, 2016 @ 3:27 pm

In fairness, I think the Washington Post is even worse than the NYT. At least they have one guy–Ross Douthat who tried to understand even if he didn’t support Trump. What passes for “serious conservative” at the Post is Jennifer Rubin and Michael Gerson.

The media this election reminds me of a little boy who is working on and trying to get potty trained. He’s standing in front of the toilet and shoots before he aims and hits himself and so he throws a fit over it. The media mocked Trump right out of the gate before he had even come down the escalator to say one word. When he started gaining traction, they responded by attacking him more and not listening to his supporters. 18+ months writing them all off as racists. They spent the entire election cycle pissing themselves and their credibility and now lash out at everyone else. It’s Trumps fault! It’s the voters fault! etc.

#29 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 11, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

Even more ridiculous is that TV programs like The Daily Show do not have even one pro-Trump person or even a conservative working there to tell the rest of them that non-liberals exist.

I can think of nothing more ridiculous than expecting a comedy show to maintain a meticulous politically correct balance of diverse viewpoints. There’s lots of comedy on the air. Pick what’s funny to you.

The funny thing is, their narrative about Hillary’s inevitability may be what led to so many Dem voters not going to the polls for her.

Nope. Loyal Dems made it to the polls. New voters and independents without Dem party loyalty found voting for Hillary either too uninspiring to bother, or couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either one. Maybe Sanders SHOULD have thrown caution to the wind and run as an independent. Remember this? “Hell no, DNC, we won’t vote for Hillary.” I ran into that knocking on doors for Feingold in 2010: “How can I choose between two people I don’t trust?”

As a young reporter, a few days into my job at a city newspaper, I was taken aback when our managing editor stood before the large window in the news room, lookng out on the city, arms akimbo, and declared, “I tell people what to think.”

Some newspapers are pulling back from even making political endorsements, partly because they have learned that it doesn’t make much difference in how people vote, partly because they have to be able to talk to those who win, whoever they are.

#30 Comment By Andrea On November 11, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

I keep meaning to cancel my subscription to the Times.

#31 Comment By JLF On November 11, 2016 @ 3:57 pm

So, I’m reading the report that the NY Times and other media elite decide the story line and send reporters into the field to get the story to match and it comes to me: This is the epitome of capitalism. Owners of the means of production decide what product to produce and sell to their consumers and are rewarded by the marketplace with subscriptions and advertising dollars. Nothing personal, folks. It’s just business.

#32 Comment By jnw On November 11, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

New York Times: Not a credible source of information.

#33 Comment By Rambler89 On November 11, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

There’s another reason why the Times’s arrogance and blindness was so absolutely total: until Tuesday, they had nearly the entire commentariat of the country (and Western Europe, for that matter)–left, right and center–eating out of their hand in hopes of getting a job there, if not as a direct purveyor of the Narrative, then as a token alternate voice to give the appearance of balance and keep the corporate advertisers happy.

That’s a game the Times has played for years. Like any other glamor employer in New York, they’ve always known that plenty of people will do anything for a ticket to the big city. Hiring religious conservative Ross Douthat was one of the cleverest plays they ever made.

Accordingly, until Tuesday, few in the conservative commentariat were willing to portray, or even to see, the Times as the complete farce it was. Typical was one pundit I know of, who proclaimed a year or so ago that, despite radical differences with the Times over an issue very dear to his heart (religion, I think it was), that the Times was still “a great paper.”

I’m almost old enough to remember, and have read enough old newspapers to have seen, how the media and journalists in the 60s repositioned themselves for the new Narrative, which lasted fifty years. I am resignedly looking forward to seeing the same spectacle in reverse.

#34 Comment By Stephen Hoffmann On November 11, 2016 @ 8:05 pm

Letter sent out by NYT today:

To our readers,

“When the biggest political story of the year reached a dramatic and unexpected climax late Tuesday night, our newsroom turned on a dime and did what it has done for nearly two years — cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity. . . .

As we reflect on this week’s momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign. . . . ”

SERIOUSLY?!

#35 Comment By Bernie On November 11, 2016 @ 10:36 pm

@JLF who says:

“So, I’m reading the report that the NY Times and other media elite decide the story line and send reporters into the field to get the story to match and it comes to me: This is the epitome of capitalism.”

No, it’s the epitome of corrupt “journalism” that misleads and misinforms readers based on the preferred narrative of the media elite. It’s fraudulent corruption.

#36 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 11, 2016 @ 10:38 pm

JLF nails it. The NY Times is just doing capitalism the way capitalism has always been done.

We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign. . . . ”

SERIOUSLY?!

There was talk some time back about how the NY Times and other media made Trump into a serious candidate by lavishing coverage on him, because it sold papers. Can’t say any recent developments have convinced me otherwise.

#37 Comment By David J. White On November 12, 2016 @ 7:44 am

I can think of nothing more ridiculous than expecting a comedy show to maintain a meticulous politically correct balance of diverse viewpoints. There’s lots of comedy on the air. Pick what’s funny to you.

I understand your point, Siarlys, but the problem is that many viewers do in fact treat The Daily Show as a news show. I remember a poll taken some years ago asking people what their main source of news was, and a rather large percentage of young people actually cited The Daily Show as their main source of news.

#38 Comment By David J. White On November 12, 2016 @ 8:01 am

I’ve told this story before but it’s relevant here.

I was living in Philadelphia at the time of the 1992 election, in which The Philadelphia Inquirer endorsed Bill Clinton. After the election the paper ran an article about the editorial board that had discussed and recommended the endorsement. The board was about a dozen people, IIRC, and the article made a big deal about how “diverse” the board was — so many women, so many blacks, etc. (I confess I was reminded of Reagan Interior secretary James Watt’s description of how diverse his department was: “I have a woman, a black, two Jews, and a cripple.”)

The article also mentioned that no one on the board seriously argued for endorsing George Bush. A few days later the paper published a letter from a reader pointing out that Bush had received over 30% of the popular vote [I forget the exact figure] and that if the board had bern truly diverse and representative, it would have included at least a couple of people disposed to argue in favor if endorsing Bush. So “diversity” has been defined in purely cosmetic terms for awhile now.

And while it us true that the city of Philadelphia is overwhelmingly Democratic, which might explain the composition of the editorial board, the paper claims to serve the entire metro area, including the suburban counties, some of which are (or at least were at the time) more disposed to vote Republican.

#39 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On November 12, 2016 @ 8:47 am

And it gonna be really amusing to see MSM sycophants not even able to defect to the winning side, since they were not criticizing, but insulting the victor outright. Male merenti.

#40 Comment By a commenter On November 12, 2016 @ 3:48 pm

I remember a couple years ago when the NYTimes decided to have a partial paywall. I debated whether to subscribe, because I can get the same news elsewhere for free, and I decided to subscribe because I felt at least there should be one newspaper out there (and the NYT seemed to most likely to succeed in it) that was willing and financially able to be objective. So my specific reason for subscribing to the NYT was because I wanted to support objective and unbiased journalism.

Then I just felt like they were in a bubble, and a very biased bubble at that. So I canceled my subscription. I can read biased stuff anywhere. For free.

#41 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 12, 2016 @ 6:52 pm

I understand your point, Siarlys, but the problem is that many viewers do in fact treat The Daily Show as a news show.

More fools them. I remember watching a video of “The Last Temptation of Christ” with a newly born-again Christian friend, and noticed his eyes were bulging with the notion that he was seeing the Gospel brought to the silver screen. I gently told him, heterodox though I am, that this was a movie based on a novel that had been widely condemned as heretical and even blasphemous, albeit Billy Dafoe does do a good Jesus Christ. That movie should not be confused with Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” of which it can also be truly said, “it wasn’t as good as the book.”

Just because people of limited intellect insist that a comedy show is The Nightly New With Walter Cronkite, does not mean that we should subject comedy to the criteria of Objective Journalism.

But then, there are those who rely on Breitbart as their primary source of The News, and they don’t even get a dose of humor with that.

#42 Comment By J Clivas On November 13, 2016 @ 6:29 pm

German soldiers did pretty well following orders from higher up, at least until the Russian campaign.