NPR and the Power of Narrative

Bill Evans head shot

“Most of the government is shut down.”  So we repeatedly hear from mainstream news outlets like National Public Radio (NPR), as they continue to hammer the narrative that American wellbeing and the interests of the common person are threatened by a small group of selfish “Tea Party extremists” who have seized control of the Republican Party in order to subvert the Constitution and representative democracy.

Of course, the reality is that the facts don’t support this narrative.  According to informed estimates, 83 percent of the government continues to operate.  And this, in turn, explains why lots of Americans don’t seem particularly worried, despite mainstream media efforts to portray the situation as apocalyptic or worse.

Moreover, the Republican Party is, in fact, a splintered and messy conglomeration of main-street business interests, neo-cons, libertarians, cultural conservatives, religious conservatives, and yes, Tea Party types.  And for the record, despite the whining of the current President, in this instance the government is working exactly as the Founding Fathers envisioned.

But all this inconvenient body of facts is of little consequence, because it’s the narrative that matters.  When large portions of the electorate have not had even the most cursory exposure to civics, American history, and the history of the Western political tradition, the debate is not going to be about facts and principles.  Rather, it’s about constructing a narrative that will motivate people, and often the resulting narrative has no feet on the ground and little contact with reality.  The list of such yarns is lengthy.  Take, for example, the “Republican war on women” from 2012, a tale spun by progressives in order to advance the culture of death and brutality against the unborn that gave us Kermit Gosnell and some of the most permissive abortion laws on the face of the earth.

And if the reader is still doubtful about the argument of this article, consider a recent radio interview by NPR host Rachel Martin with author Stephen Jimenez, himself a homosexual, whose recent The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard (Steerforth, 2014) challenges the received narrative that the brutal murder of Shepard in 1998 was a “hate crime” against a gay man.  The significance of this narrative should not be underestimated, for it was reinforced almost immediately by President Clinton and it ultimately contributed a decade later to the passage of the Hate-Crimes Prevention Act.

Jimenez’s detailed research into the case has revealed a story quite different from the progressive canonical narrative of “hate crime.”  In fact, he has uncovered compelling evidence that the motive for the murder was not anti-gay animus but rather methamphetamine drug dealing gone really bad.

But in the interview Martin asked Jimenez the following extraordinarily revealing question: “As a gay man, did you have any concerns that you reporting, that digging into this issue would somehow diminish the power that the Shepard story had, and what it has meant for gay rights in this country.”  In other words, Martin seems to think that the reality that the facts of the case might well undercut the effectiveness of the progressive narrative and the leverage it generates for gay rights is an issue worth talking about.

Jimenez’s answer was commendable.  In essence, he argued, the truth matters:  “Actually, certainly along the way I’ve had those thoughts a number of times. But the stronger impulse, Rachel, was to tell the truth as I discovered it. It felt more important to me to really look at these truths and to provoke a conversation around them.”

Good for Stephen Jimenez!

So the next time you hear NPR journalists talking about how “most of the government is shut down” (when it’s not) don’t be surprised.  And the next time you notice NPR and the rest of the mainstream media studiously ignoring the people whose health insurance costs are skyrocketing because of the now ironically named Affordable Care Act, and at the same time paying no attention to part-time workers whose hours are being cut or who are losing their jobs due to the quite predictable impact of Obama Care (as anybody would have known if they had bothered to read the bill), don’t be surprised.

Remember, it’s all about the narrative.