The new stranding of news and narrative media fascinates me. Since I took a deep dive on the first season of the Serial podcast and started teaching class called Media and Narrative, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’re all consuming, remixing, and debating news. The rise in popularity of podcasting highlights how media technology can be both old and new simultaneously and, with our finite attention being drawn in more directions, how important (and problematic) the narrative of a news story become. This brings me to how much I’m enjoying the NTY’s new podcast “The Daily.”
I was a little resistant to give the show a listen when prompts to check it out started showing up on my phone (I’m a NYT subscriber, so alert notifications get pushed to me). Mostly I couldn’t imagine how a 20-minute/day show could pack all the news in; that sounded like too much compression. However, last Friday (May 19) I got an alert that a friend of James Comey had gone on the record to defend Comey, and that you could hear audio of the discussion on that day’s episode of “The Daily.” I have listened to the show every day since.
It isn’t a 20-minute daily wrap up of “everything.” Instead, think of it as a blend of Sarah Koenig and John Oliver — a deep dive into one or two topics that incorporates the journalists’ reflections on composing the story. That’s the problematic part. Journalists, unless they’re writing on the Op-Ed page, are supposed to be absent in a news story. Just a seeing eye that can ask questions. That division is important to me, and we see it breaking down all over the place (in the bias of the news sources that we hate and even, if we’re honest, in the news sources that we love).
However, the show’s host Michael Barbaro does a great job of navigating through these potential problems. It’s clear that he’s involving the storyteller in the story, and he is often asking exactly the questions that we want to ask. The mythically “objective” layer of news-gathering is an important ideal for delivering “information,” but it sometimes strips away context and ignores the story behind the construction of the “story.”
In my Media and Narrative class, one of our first readings is Hayden White’s 1980 essay “The Value of Narrativity and the Representation of Reality,” and have an important conversation about the difference between history and historiography. When I teach the first season of Serial (which I’ve done for two years now), we repeatedly return to White’s concluding rhetorical question “Could we ever narrative without moralizing?” The way that Sarah Koenig foregrounds her own process of meaning making, along with its missteps and doubts, is a perfect example of White’s predicament. And it suggests that by being self-aware and openly reflective, we can get closer to the truth by trying on its different versions.
Barbaro’s “The Daily” is doing something similarly interesting. By interviewing the journalists who are composing some of the most groundbreaking stories, he opens a third channel on the objectivity dial — not “news” and not “opinion,” but the story of the news. It’s like being invited behind the curtain to hear how a story came to be.
The news media I rely on most — NYT and NPR — are not objective. I don’t pretend that they are. I realize that I’m caught sometimes in an echo chamber that confirms my prejudgments about politics and culture. When I get a chance to read the other side(s) of the story from writers I can trust, I try to do it (the NYT’s been trying to balance the scale by offering examples of left and right writing in “Our Picks”). But I suffer this cognitive imbalance because right now the left has been empowered to do something I believe very important: call out the constant gaffes, falsifications, and the clumsy Machiavellian lumbering of the Trump administration. The left didn’t do enough of that last year, and it’s trying to make up for it now.
I don’t want “The Daily” to supplant my digestion of more straightforward news stories, but it does make those stories richer; it gives them more relief. For example, on today’s episode Barbaro and his guest Michael Grynbaum trace the origins of the “fake news” story of the death of Alex Rich and its probably relationship to conservative media’s attempts to dodge Trump’s Russia ties. I had heard some of these details before, but not in such clear detail. And yes, I’m aware the the NYT’s liberal bias could be working on this “story about a story” just like Fox’s bias might have worked on the other side of the Alex Rich story. The difference is, Fox has disavowed the story, so the individual pundits’ desires (like Sean Hannity’s) to keep it alive aside, it is now officially news that was fake and is now dead, barring other evidence that might surface.
So thanks to Michael Barbaro (along with Sarah Koenig and others) for critically examining the connection between news and narrative, between objectivity and purpose, between information and context. I look forward to chewing over “The Daily” with students in future classes.
Image courtesy of sam chills via Flickr and Creative Commons.