It’s all about the narratives

by David Zurawik

I want to thank Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Maryland U.S. Rep. Andy Harris for providing me with some clarity. Really.

Last week, I was on vacation and trying to avoid thinking about partisan politics and media warfare. But their outrageous behavior in connection with the assault on our nation’s Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 cut straight through my filters and forced me to confront their words.

With Harris, it was his refusal to vote in favor of awarding medals to police officers who defended the Capitol because the proposed legislation used the word “insurrection” to describe the attack. With Carlson, it was his unsupported allegation that members of the FBI were involved in organizing the attack.

What struck me is the way each of them was trying to control the narratives that were being told about that awful day in our nation’s history. “It’s about the stories, stupid,” I thought as I reflected on all the columns I had written in recent months about struggles over the way stories were — or were not — being told.

I had highlighted the importance of narratives and the battles over who would control them in individual columns like the one I wrote on documentaries about the racial massacre in Tulsa 100 years ago. But I wasn’t connecting the dots and showing how the core struggle in so many aspects of American life today was often over storytelling.

Much of the responsibility for our narratives falls on those of us who work in media. If journalists really do write the first drafts of history, it is more important now, than at any other time in my professional life, that we be factually correct in our storytelling and forceful in our deconstruction of false accounts like Carlson’s.

Narratives connected to Trump’s controversial presidency are the ones most regularly fought over. One reason for that is the way he continues to lie about his words and deeds on everything from his performance during the pandemic to the November election. Since the majority of Republicans in Congress are unwilling to speak the truth about his presidency, it is all the more incumbent on the media to do so. Ditto for Jan. 6 in the wake of Republicans scuttling legislation to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection.

To see what media need to be doing more of, check out CNN’s “Assault on Democracy: The Roots of Trump’s Insurrection” documentary, which can be streamed at CNN.com/go and seen on the channel Friday and Saturday at 10 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET, respectively.

“Jan. 6 was insurrection disguised as patriotism wrapped in a Trump flag,” CNN investigative journalist Drew Griffin says in the film’s opening. The belief by some of those who stormed the Capitol that they were patriots reclaiming a stolen election was, he adds, “a lie fed to them by their president, their members of Congress, their TV and radio shows, their friends on social media.” Griffin backs up his words through interviews with some of the very people who assaulted one of democracy’s most sacred sites.

Bigger than even Trump’s Big Lie, the most profound narrative battle in American life today involves the history of slavery, systemic racism and the American experience. It is at the root of controversies ranging from legislative and school board debates over critical race theory to the extent Johns Hopkins did or did not participate in the practice of slavery. This war over shared memory is shaping the national conversation today in ways that it has not since the Civil War.

One other story that cut through my vacation-week filters was that of gunfire and law-breaking in Fells Point in Baltimore. Even this story was contextualized and framed by larger narratives, I thought, as I saw it listed under the “City in Crisis” branding regularly used by the WBFF for crime stories on its website.

Are we a city in crisis? Is that really our story? Do we even have a narrative that helps define us in Baltimore?

I don’t believe we do. But I think we can do better than the one being used by WBFF, the Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate. For all of us in media, let’s think more critically about narratives and how they can help or hinder our understanding of how we see the world and what’s possible for us in it.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.