Losing the Story

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A few weeks ago, when Rachel Maddow released two pages of one of the president’s old tax returns, many people criticized her for waiting until the second segment of her show to get to the actual release; even Stephen Colbert did a full-on parody of Maddow’s on-air style on his CBS show. For those of us who watch Maddow’s show regularly, though — I don’t always agree with her, but she does have the best prime time news show out there right now (which may be the very definition of “damning with faint praise”) — it was an approach we see almost every weeknight, and nothing seemed unusual about it. Even with Maddow’s ratings spiking under the new administration, though, her release of those tax returns seemed to echo that whole Al Capone vault thing from decades past.

The first segment of Maddow’s show generally follows a set pattern: She leads with a funny or interesting fact, then explains the background and history behind the fact, then ties that information into the main news story she wants to cover during the first half-hour of her show. It’s not uncommon for Maddow to take twenty minutes to explain about thirty seconds’ worth of news this way, but it’s this approach that has earned her such a loyal base of fans, because she arguably does more to contextualize current news than anyone else in prime time. I barely caught her Air America radio show when it was on the air, but I’m guessing that she honed this approach during her talk radio days, because it’s pretty much impossible to do straight news in that format, so she had to develop ways to extend a limited amount of news into however many hours of radio programming she was responsible for. In addition to contextualizing the news, I also appreciate Maddow’s nerdy sense of humour, being quite the nerd myself, and we all need to laugh right now with all the bad stuff going on in the world around us.

More to the point, Maddow’s approach at the start of her show almost turns it into a kind of storytelling, which may be why I’m so drawn to it, and why I’ve sometimes consciously (and unconsciously) aped Maddow’s style in these blogs. As a storyteller myself (cough cough buy my novel cough), it’s hard for me to resist the power of a good story, whether it be in my writing or my teaching or what I choose to do in my rapidly-dwindling personal time, and as I’ll be explaining in a future episode of Socratic Sense, that kind of structure makes it a more efficacious way of remembering things than other learning methodologies.

To some extent, all pre-planned television news shows  try to create a narrative of some kind, even if that form often fails to meet the strictest definition of the word “story.” Whenever there is time to plan a segment out, show producers conduct pre-interviews with guests to mine them for good answers, then work those exchanges into a series of questions that the show’s host/s can ask, in a given order, to yield the best possible interview. If you want to learn more about this part of how television works (and this goes for pretty much every show that does interviews, not just news shows), Joe Muto’s An Atheist in the Foxhole would be a good first book to start with.

When news is breaking, though, all those preparations go out the window. More often than not, whoever is anchoring breaking news coverage has to come up with all their interview questions off the top of their heads, as well as fill in details between interviews and recite any breaking news flashes that come into the studio. This is why most of the hosts on prime time news shows don’t cover breaking news, because their expertise is in the pre-planned, heavily-scripted format detailed above. (Also, hosts who pre-tape their entire shows and go home before they’re aired, like Bill O’Reilly, aren’t physically there to do a new, live show if breaking news demands that.)

One of the hallmarks of this new administration is doing a lot of things at once, and doing them all quickly, to the point where even the most wired political junkie is having a hard time remembering everything that’s happened in just these first seventy days since the new president took office. There’s already been a lot written about how this could be a deliberate tactic, to distract from some actions by performing other, more media-grabbing actions at the same time, but I haven’t seen anything written about how this “breaking news every day” era is forcing so many news shows to frequently abandon their planned shows in order to devote attention to whatever big political story grabbed the American consciousness in the minutes before a show goes to air. Like the allegations of distraction, I suspect that this is a deliberate tactic that the new administration is using, to try to make it more difficult for the press to cover everything that the administration is doing.

News shows always have to prepare for stories to change just before airtime, but prime time news shows have the advantage of that three-hour gap before the end of the “normal” work day and the start of prime time; they can adjust to breaking stories far more easily than the broadcast nightly news shows can. Covering news full-time has always been an exercise in vigilance and lightning-quick adaptation — as much as a lot of what passes for television “news” these days stinks, it’s still a very difficult job — but now that seems to be the case two or three times over, compared to what previous presidents put the press corps through.

Indeed, one of the reasons I believe Rachel Maddow has been doing so well these past few months is because she’s still able to follow her usual structure most nights, to start her show with a long contextualization of current news that helps viewers to situate the things we’re all living through right now in the labyrinthine web of history, helping us all understand what elements of this current administration we’ve seen before, and what elements are truly unprecedented.

For the viewers of all the other news shows out there, though, the shows’ inability to keep to a coherent narrative as they try to cover so much breaking news means that their viewers might not really understand what is going on, just because it’s so difficult to say just what the story is of this new administration. It certainly feels like an out-of-control, turbo-charged rocket ship, but none of us seem to be able to tell whether it’s shooting us straight to the heavens, spiraling out of control or, quite possibly, about to crash into the side of a mountain and destroy all of us who didn’t get ejector seats at the start or afford parachutes for when we try to eject.

It always takes time to tell the story of a presidency, but we still have to write drafts of that story while the presidency is going on; that is one of the key powers of journalists, whether they use that power for good or for ill. If the press cannot tell that story right now because they’re so swamped by the machinations of the current administration — and it’s easy to see why this may be the case — then perhaps it’s up to the rest of us to write those drafts, get them circulating, and help each other stay informed about just what in the heck is happening here. I know that I could sure use the help keeping track of everything right now.

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