In this morning's San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Carroll quotes Jay Rosen:
JON CARROLL: So today we're going to talk about "master narrative." I first ran across the term in a blog called "Press Think" by Jay Rosen. It's here: http://tinyurl.com/oipd. The term "master narrative" is... an intuitively obvious concept. Journalism proceeds along predictable lines because there is a tacit agreement in the press about what makes a story. This doesn't have anything to do with politics as such, although it can have a profound effect on politics. It has to do with the structure of a news story versus the structure of reality.
The example Rosen gives is the "horse race" mentality in the coverage of political campaigns. He's real good, so I'll just quote him:
In standard coverage of political campaigns, where one goal is always to appear nonpartisan and above the fray, the master narrative has for a long time been winning -- who's going to win, who seems to be winning, what the candidates are doing to win, how much money it takes to win, how the primary in South Carolina is critical to winning and so on. Reporters call this the horse race, one of the rare occasions on which they have aptly named their own master narrative and recognized it as a story machine -- almost an appliance for cooking news....
Most people who pay attention to politics know that candidates who cannot win are safely ignored by the press until they threaten to affect the outcome. Then they become part of the story because they fit its terms. Winning, then, is the story that produces all (or almost all) the other stories; and when you figure in it you are likely to become news. This is a relatively nonpartisan, apparently neutral, sometimes technical and of course reusable device, easily operated, and it maintains an agreed-upon narrative, which then maintains the press tribe as one tribe. In this way, master narratives resembles myths as anthropologists understand them.
Were 'winning' to somehow get removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?"
That last point is particularly important. It's not that the media are unaware of the inadequacies of horse-race coverage; that's a pretty common conversation in newsrooms. The question that has so far not been answered: If not that, then what? How do you construct a "story" -- that is, a coherent manageable narrative that stretches for weeks or months -- if you don't have a framework. It becomes a self-perpetuating event; there are now so many people -- pollsters, for instance -- and institutions feeding the horse-race story that it's hard to see another way through the woods.
Atul Gawande, the physician who had a monthlong stint as a New York Times columnist, noticed that same thing without identifying it: "This week, Barack Obama released his health care reform plan. It's a puzzle how you're supposed to regard presidential candidates' proposals. They are treated, by campaigns and media alike, as some kind of political GPS device -- gadgets primarily for political positioning.
Exactly right. Do you know the difference between John Edwards' health plan and Hillary Clinton's health plan? Employer-based health insurance is a disaster, and it's getting worse, and everyone knows it, but the solutions are far too complicated to make a coherent story. Even if a newspaper were to analyze the differences, would you read the analysis? There's no human interest; there's no conflict and resolution. So are the media failing because they're not giving you stuff you wouldn't read anyway?...
And as they round the far turn, it's Clinton ahead by a nose, followed by Edwards running between horses and - here comes Obama! Here comes Obama!
The alternative--the better--master narratives are "which of these policy proposals would be best for the country?" and "what did we learn today about whether so-and-so would make a good or a bad president?" These are the organizing frameworks of the intellectual communities I see in my day job. And it is the journamalists' impatience with--and in many cases contempt for--these frameworks that is, I think, the reason that I can bond with anyone who has ever worked in government in less than five minutes by saying, "Let me tell you my worst press-interaction story..." They'll then respond with theirs, and we're best friends for life.