“Sometimes the shouting gets so loud in the name of uniques or ratings that it obscures the complexity of a broader conversation that people know is much more layered and diverse. … Passion can be myopic, ill-informed, redundant.”

MSNBC President Phil Griffin was speaking of the costs and dangers of the us vs them media at the Israeli Presidential Conference last week. It was a nice switch from the BBC executives who aired a promo with a woman speaking of her desire for a media outlet that had no agenda and that supported the weak and the oppressed, apparently unaware that the two requirements were contradictory.

“I worry about anger. We had angry hosts that left. Every week I tell people to tone it down. I don’t want to get personal. We’ve been personal.”

So far so good. Then he surprised me.

“Rachel [Maddow] never gets personal.”

WHAT?! You mean she doesn’t constantly do things like this?

Rachel completely misrepresented the story of what critics viewed as an attempted billion dollar boondoggle, insisting that the only reason these individuals could have possibly opposed the bill is because they were evil.

If you think that’s an exception, check out any of her other videos. She’s good television because she excels at making her side feel good about how stupid and evil people on the other side are.

It’s interesting that Griffin seemed aware of the damage done by his angry hosts, but thought that Maddow never gets personal. Maddow always get personal. I suspect that we all recognize and fear anger and shouting. But smug demonization is infuriating when you side with the target, but good clean fun when you side with the attacker. This may be one reason many supporters of Presidents Obama and Bush were puzzled by the other side’s venom towards the president.

Differentiated voice and compelling storytelling

The media executives on the panel agreed that successfully delivering the news was all about a differentiated voice and compelling story telling.

“Over time you realize what people click on, share,” said Haaretz Editor-In-Chief Aluf Benn. “They click / share on What would I do if I were the protagonist. That’s what the Greek dramas were. Good storytelling never changed, just the framework changed.”

HBO CEO Richard Plepler made the same points, speaking of the need to “make quality TV, differentiated TV … There is an environment for great storytelling. It all comes down to storytelling and content. And having an original voice.”

The very presence of the HBO CEO on the same panel as the people who bring us the news was an education in what the news media are today. News is a niche genre within the storytelling industry. Or perhaps a sub-genre of Reality TV. You have comedy, action, drama, reality and news. Pretty faces giving us compelling stories with heroes and villains.

“It’s still all about storytelling,” HotAir’s Ed Morrissey agreed.

“Will there be room for neutrality?” moderator Jane Eisner asked.

“There is no such thing as mainstream, unopinionated storytelling,” Benn said. Griffin and Morrissey nodded in agreement. “If I publish a non-Kosher recipe, it’s a political statement. A picture of a mother wearing a bikini on a beach is a political statement.

“In Israel we were dominated by Yediot. Israel Hayom forced Yediot to take more of a stand. Before they pretended to be neutral. Once they had an opinionated competitor, they became more open about their perspective.”

Ed Morrissey chimed in. “Think about the British model. For many years they had papers that were explicitly point of view papers. We’re going that way in the US. In Britain the papers are even aligned with major parties. That’s great. I read the Guardian, the Telegraph, the New York Times, the LA Times. They all add value to my knowledge. You need to know what the admitted perspective is. That lets the user say ‘I understand this is what the Guardian says, what does the Telegraph say?’ You couldn’t do this before the web. I read Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post. They’re good sources for stories. We now have access to a wide variety of perspectives.

“Before the internet … we weren’t servicing customer choice; we were dictating public experience. People are more informed now. When the points of view are explicit people can take that into context. People are smart. The overall effect is tremendously positive.”

Progressive and conservative story arcs

The most common progressive story arc is:

  1. The world is wonderful and full of harmony and love.
  2. Greedy evil stupid bigoted bad guys ruined things.
  3. Good guys found the solution.
  4. Bad guys are so greedy and invested in the status quo that they derail the solution.
  5. Progressives will win in the end because the public will see the evil villains for what they really are.

Got to appreciate progressives’ commitment to reduce, reuse and recycle when they can use the same core narrative for everything from Avatar to every Rachel Maddow segment.

  1. World is peaceful.
  2. Bad guys start Iraq War, leaving many unemployed wounded veterans.
  3. Good guys create jobs training program that (like every program in the land of rainbows and unicorns) pays for itself.
  4. Bad guys sabotage bill because it would help nice black man get re-elected.

Or

  1. Climate was stable for billions of years.
  2. Bad guys are cause global warming manmade climate change.
  3. Good guys can solve it.
  4. Greedy anti-science bad guys sabotage solutions because they only care about themselves and their money, and not about babies, the planet or the future.

Elsewhere at the conference, Harvard professor and bestselling author Daniel Gilbert spoke of how the brain prefers stories with a strong moral component and a good villain. The progressives’ stories are morally compelling.

The conservatives have two primary arcs:

  1. The world is messy.
  2. Idiotic progressives make things worse in their attempts to control the chaos.

And

  1. [Evil / lazy / stupid / immoral] people are trying to take away our [lives / money / guns / jobs / values / religion].
  2. We should stop them.

The problem isn’t the story arcs’ simplicity. It’s that while story arcs are built in to fiction, they have to be imposed upon non-fiction. We twist fragments of reality into a good narrative framework. News is a sub-genre within reality TV, snippets of reality patched together for maximum engagement.

Also at the conference, Nobelist Daniel Kahneman spoke of how in most conflicts, each side sees itself as innocently reacting to the other side’s aggression. So each spouse will see the other’s actions as proof that they’re always so X, and see its own actions as a reasonable response to unreasonable provocation.

Even if we agree on all the details of the political dysfunction, we have different perspectives as to which side is the innocent victim. The left focuses on the Senate Minority Leader’s statement that his key goal was to prevent the president from being re-elected. The right focuses on how the president said that his key goal was to prevent Speaker Boehner from retaining his majority. Each side asserts that the other side’s comments prove that it will not work together in good faith for the good of the country. And left and right live in largely non-overlapping information bubbles and echo chambers, where the only things we’re exposed to from the other side are the worst comments by the worst people, usually taken out of context and spun into our side’s narrative.

We have an unusual situation in the US right now, with two stories that cross party lines: the NSA snooping and the bloodbath in Syria. And still we can’t escape the partisan bubbles. Each side focuses on the other’s hypocrisy, how President Obama or Vice President Biden or Sean Hannity said this then and seemingly the opposite now, and aren’t they just jerks. Regarding Syria, we can blame Bush’s aggression or Obama’s weakness, but most people are having a hard time wrapping their heads around a nice moral narrative, with a good guy, a villain, and a solution. So we change the channel.

Us vs them

The man next to me brought it all together for me with his question:

“I’m part of the Us that you represent,” he said to the MSNBC president. Which surprised me, because he looked so normal.

“But we just heard we need less of a focus on us vs. them. And you guys are doing us vs them.”

He was referring to President Clinton’s speech an hour earlier, whose core was “The whole of human history has been a constant battle to redefine who is us and who is them … [we must] continually expand the definition of who is us and to shrink the definition of who is them.”

Well, us has been redefined as all the people who think conservatives are evil and them as all the people who think progressives are idiots. Or vice versa. Maybe that’s progress, I don’t know.

“We don’t live in a Manichean world,” Griffin said, which is a big part of the answer, I think. We should stop trying to eliminate us vs them, and instead interact from a better place, where we realize that neither side holds the monopoly on good, evil, smart or stupid. He then discussed the need to tone down the anger, which is also key, though I wish he’d also ask his people to tone down the smugness. And that the other side would do so as well.

It’s a tough problem. When every outlet is focused on differentiation, on compelling story telling, and on building a passionate and engaged audience, you don’t get truth and mutual respect. You get tribalism, mythology, and demonization.

On the other hand, as the media executives agreed, and as the New York Times repeatedly proves, there’s no such thing as unopinionated story telling.

News outlets have perhaps worked too hard to differentiate themselves in their ability to unify their tribe and demonize and repel the other. The demonization is bad, but the diversity of viewpoints is good. As Morrissey points out, there are so many news sources and it’s so easy to switch between them that we can understand many different perpsectives. If we work at it hard enough and if we can overcome the cognitive dissonance.

Us vs them media is a messy problem.

Attempting to control the chaos will just make it worse.

But perhaps new outlets can differentiate themselves on their ability to educate and engage without demonizing and repelling. Outlets with admitted perspectives and mutual respect. Striving not to end the distinction between us and them, but to increase the mutual respect between the us and the them. I don’t know if it will happen. But if it did, it would make a hell of a story.