Media Narratives Imprison Clinton, Trump — and Voters

The press always follows the stories and characteristics they attach to candidates, no matter how much journalists argue that they are simply recording them.

Media Narratives Imprison Clinton, Trump — and Voters

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the LGBT for Hillary Gala at Cipriani Club on Sept. 9, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Please indulge me. I want to return to the subject of political narratives for two reasons. One, there were several good examples this past week of how narratives drive election coverage, and two, they very likely will determine the election’s outcome.

Narratives are the stories and characteristics that the media attach to candidates, so the election turns into a “movie” pitting one protagonist’s qualities against another’s. In this election, we all know the narrative constructs because the media hammer at them day after day after day: Hillary Clinton is a cold, secretive, defensive liar who is nevertheless competent; Donald Trump is a loose cannon who is nevertheless plain-spoken and says exactly what’s on his mind. The media never deviate from these ideas. Indeed, they are high-security prisons from which the candidates cannot escape.

No matter what Clinton says or does, it will always be filtered through the pre-existing scrim.

But what we might fail to recognize is that we are also imprisoned by these narratives, and so are the media who built them. The news always — and I do mean always — follows the narratives, no matter how much journalists may argue that the narratives follow the news, or even, incredibly, that the public created the narratives and the media are simply recording them. Once the narratives are established — and this is not an organic process; they are set long before the campaign begins — the rest of the coverage is essentially adjusting the news to underscore what the media already have determined.

No matter what Clinton says or does, it will always be filtered through the pre-existing scrim. If she talks policy, she is cold. If she insists — rightfully, to my mind — that the email brouhaha is a molehill turned into not just any mountain but Everest, she is defensive. If she meets, as every politician does, with friends and favor-seekers, she is corrupt, whether she has doled out favors or not. These are the traits the media have assigned to her.

As for Trump, if he insults people, the narrative says he is speaking his mind, though his mind may seem askew. If he blusters and brags, it is what businessmen do, though it often reveals an ignorance of how government works. If he refuses to release his tax returns or his health records, he is cleverly gaming the system, not cheating it, though it may not be entirely kosher. These are the traits the media have assigned to him.

But you may have noticed something. Even the negative attributes the media have slapped on Trump — and, as I wrote last week, most of the attributes the media slap on candidates are negative — are better than the ones they have put on Clinton. Her actions can all be chalked up to duplicity; Trump’s, on the other hand, to his politically incorrect honesty. Never mind that Trump may be, if you follow PolitiFact, the single most mendacious candidate in the history of presidential politics.

In a typical news day, these narratives play out with perfunctory regularity. What deception did Clinton commit today or what wild statement did Trump make? But the effect can be anything but perfunctory. The Associated Press made a big (and ultimately hollow) charge against Clinton, suggesting a pay-for-play scheme at the Clinton Foundation while she was Secretary of State. Though the story has been thoroughly discredited by Vox and other sites, it has never, to the best of my knowledge, been discredited on network television news, where the story has been broadcast as yet another example of Clinton’s chicanery.  

You know the media narrative — whatever faults Trump may have, lying, especially about money, isn’t one of them. Hillary is the liar, Trump the wild man.

But here is something about a foundation you aren’t likely to have heard much about — the Trump Foundation. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold spent months contacting charities, looking for evidence of Trump’s much-vaunted largesse. Here is what he revealed this week: between 2008 and May 2016, Trump himself made one charitable donation — of less than $10,000. One! So Trump not only lied, he was a skinflint. Moreover, since 2008, Trump has given no money to his own foundation. And one more thing: the foundation broke tax laws by making a political donation.

This is a big story — one about a seeming flat-out lie. But you know the media narrative about him — whatever faults Trump may have, lying, especially about money, isn’t one of them. Hillary is the liar, Trump the wild man.

Or take Clinton’s wobble on Sunday, after leaving ceremonies at the 9/11 memorial. Later that day it was announced that her doctor was treating the candidate for pneumonia. In any normal, non-narrative context, this would have been, as Clinton herself had surmised, no big deal. She kept on campaigning despite her condition because — well, because if she hadn’t, the media would have latched onto another narrative strand: that she might have serious health issues. (Sage Tom Brokaw even interrupted his tributes to the Greatest Generation to suggest she see a neurologist.)

So what happens? This minor matter throws the media into a tizzy because it is, by their narrative lights, yet another example of Clinton’s duplicity. She should have told them she had pneumonia.

You may notice something else in operation here. There is not only the narrative, but there is the metanarrative, which is the narrative about the narrative. The narrative is that Clinton is a liar yet again. The metanarrative is that she is a liar not because she was suffering from pneumonia but because she hid it from the press, which, if you follow this logic, she should have realized would use her failure to disclose the illness as yet another example of her duplicity.

I know that seems tortured, but it demonstrates how the press not only set up the narrative but then have the audacity to report on whether or not a candidate fulfills the narrative as the media determine it. It is as if filmmakers were allowed to write reviews of their own pictures.

The press not only set up the narrative but then have the audacity to report on whether or not a candidate fulfills the narrative as the media determine it.

An even more egregious example of a metanarrative was Clinton’s now-infamous “deplorable” comment. It is hard to disagree with her, if you believe her definition of deplorable. There is overwhelming evidence that large numbers of Trump supporters do fit that definition and that, as I wrote in an earlier post, fewer are driven to his camp by economic issues than by uglier ones.

But that is not how the mainstream media reported her remarks. Instead, they provided a metanarrative: Clinton should have known better than to say what she said because she should have known the media would report that she should have known better. In short, she failed the media, not the public, and certainly not standards of truth.

Where that leaves us is not only with a narrative that works heavily to Clinton’s disadvantage — a congenital liar versus an uncensored blowhard — but also an equally important metanarrative that works just as heavily to her disadvantage — namely, again, that she hasn’t been nimble enough to anticipate how the press will report upon her activities, which makes her seem obtuse.

Meanwhile, if the media have contempt for Clinton’s inability to impress them, they have a grudging admiration for Trump’s ability to turn their criticisms to his advantage. Clinton is, understandably, terrified of the media. Trump, for all the darts he throws at them, knows the media is a useful foil. It is a great symbiosis.

None of this bodes well for Hillary Clinton, which is why this election between a highly qualified, if more or less traditional, candidate and a buffoonish authoritarian nihilist is as close as it is. One of the great political transformations of the last 30 years is that of the electorate into an audience. The electorate looks to policies that will help it. An audience looks to narratives that will excite it.

The media created this state of affairs. They threw over substance to focus on plotlines and character traits. Unfortunately, we have to live with the consequences. If the authoritarian nihilist is elected because of a few emails, a phony foundation scandal, and a fainting spell, we all know whom to blame.

But by then it will be too late.


Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.