Media Narratives and Their Unreliable Narrators

The unreliable narrator is a notable feature of the modern novel. The sophisticated reader is expected to pick up clues (planted by the novelist as distinguished from the narrator) in order to correct whatever false impressions he or she receives from the narration. The novelist forgoes the privilege of omniscient narration to awaken the reader from the torpor of passivity, encouraging intelligent resistance to what the narrative voice is saying about the world it is representing. In the world of politics, we speak of the media narrative of our political life. The narrators (and there are many) are called pundits. Their reading or listening audience are generally uneducated in the practice of distinguishing between the unreliable, who are legion, and the reliable narrators, who are few. There is no overseeing presence like the novelist to provide us with clues to distinguish the reliable from the unreliable. This is unfortunate since the media even more than political parties and their propaganda machines shape our perceptions and understanding of political life. We may discount the effusions of the propaganda machines, knowing where they come from, but the pundits with their reputation for wisdom (whether earned or unearned) tend to disarm our critical faculties. The result is that media narratives have too often distorted our understanding of the political life and have faced little effort from readers and listeners to counter the distortions. The media may boast of speaking truth to power as if the media itself (a collective noun) is not in fact a power equal to if not greater than the political powers to which it presumes to speak the truth.

What follows is a review of the media narrative of the Obama Administration. I begin with the chapters on foreign policy, in particular the president’s actions or his inaction in Iraq. The main arc of the narrative is that Obama’s predecessor made the mistake of invading Iraq without an inkling of what the consequences would be and Obama made the mistake of prematurely withdrawing troops without an appreciation of the consequences. The narrative in effect implies a false equivalency, both presidents being viewed as equally responsible for our plight in Iraq. Pundits, not confined to conservatives from whom we expect disparagement of Obama no matter what he does, seem generally agreed that he has withdrawn troops prematurely. They never say how long the troops should have remained in place and at what point a withdrawal would achieve the kind of stability that would not require the presence of American troops. They never say, because they do not know. Nobody knows. Given the intensity and long history of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, it is clear to no one what it would take to overcome that conflict and create a decent order not only in Iraq, but in the Middle East generally. Pundits without a stake in the formation and execution of policy never stop to consider the uncertain consequences of virtually any decision that the president might make in acting or not acting. Talk is cheap. We do know the consequences of our disastrous shock and awe invasion in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. The decision to invade was made by a deceitful and incompetent Administration. (There were no weapons of mass destruction threatening “the homeland,” and those in charge probably knew it. The Administration at the time certainly lied about their certainty that the weapons existed.) Even those who supported the war, the neo-conservatives who engineered it and liberal hawks who went along for the ride, have in many instances conceded that “a mistake was made.”

The decision to withdraw Iraqi troops after more than decade of fruitless war making can be debated, but it is hardly comparable to the egregious invasion that took place under the previous Administration. There is no equivalence. On the current crisis in Syria: the liberal Cokie Roberts states with unearned confidence that Hilary Clinton was right that we should have supported the moderate, secularly inclined, Syrian rebels earlier in the Civil War. The result of not having done so has been at once an advantage to Assad and to the terrorist groups, in particular ISIS. Here are possible consequences that she does not consider. A no fly zone executed by the American Air Force might result in our planes being shot down, no essential change in the Civil War and mission creep. Supplying the rebels with arms could easily turn into a situation comparable to that which has recently occurred in Iraq. The more effective terrorist groups would defeat the secular rebels, which could easily lead to arms falling into the hands of the terrorists. Doesn’t it make sense for Obama to hesitate and reflect before reentering Iraq or intervening in Syria and any other place where our presence might make things even worse than the horrors already being committed? The reactionary Laura Ingraham in an uncharacteristic moment of disinterested reflection concedes that there are no good choices for American policy in the Mid East, but then can’t resist dumping on Obama for his supposedly feckless leadership without the slightest suggestion of what he could do or should do that he is not already doing. Obama has now made an understandable and controversial decision in deciding to intervene in Syria, because of the truly dangerous expansion of Isis in Iraq, which effectively erodes the border between Iraq and Syria.

In response to a question weeks ago about strategy in the current crisis with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Obama stated that the Administration does not yet have a strategy. The Administration was in the process of debating alternative strategies. Inevitably, the statement was reported as a reflection of the president’s indecisiveness and weakness. (If he had the chance to revise the sentence, he probably would have said, “we are in the process of formulating a strategy.”) Presidents are not supposed to admit openly that they have not immediately decided what to do when confronted by a crisis. The fact is that sane leaders sit down with advisers and take the necessary time (if time is a available) to figure out what has to should be done. What distinguishes Obama’s statement is his transparency, presumably a virtue only on occasions when he is not transparent. The pundits draw a portrait of the president as a ditherer, a waffler, weak in resolve, incapable of decisive action—as if decisiveness is a value irrespective of what one is being decisive about. When reminded of the decisiveness of Bush and his premature declaration of Mission Accomplished, those who sit at the roundtable on Sunday morning talk shows nod dismissively in acknowledgement, but then express their dismay that the president has no grand strategy (no large narrative?) for addressing the dangers that the terrorists pose to “the homeland.” It’s as if a grand strategy is available for the having, though we rarely hear a word of what that might be from the wise men and women who sit around the table and talk, talk and talk. When Obama does decide to reenter Iraq in a limited way to protect the ancient religious sect the Yadizis from the genocidal ambitions of ISIS and defend the American presence in Iraq as well as the Kurdish forces who are probably our only effective allies, we hear complaints about the narrow scope of the intervention without any reflection on what a wider intervention and its consequences would look like. Obama, our writer/president, intuitively understands that narratives (real life as well as fictional) conceived in the head before events actually unfold themselves will probably not hold up and only disappoint or injure those who have been made to believe in the narratives. Obama’s caution and hesitations reflect a salutary uncertainty about consequences and a desire for flexibility in responding to unforeseen circumstances. Unlike his predecessor or his critics on the right, he has the capacity and courage to admit that he failed to foresee the consequences of certain actions he took, for instance in Libya when he had no strategy for what would replace Gaddafi. He also acknowledged his surprise at the speed at which ISIS evolved into a dangerous power. (Remember, when asked at a press conference about any mistakes that he made as president, George W. Bush was dumbfounded—as if such a question was inconceivable.)

Turning to Ukraine, the pundits remind us of a mistake the President Obama did make and which he has not acknowledged: he failed to act on his apparent promise to act when he drew a red line on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical warfare. The mistake is not that he failed to act, but that he drew the red line in the first place. (What the critics rarely mention is the Administration’s accomplishment in getting the Syrian regime to rid itself of its stockpile of chemical weapons.) But then the leap is made: Obama’s failure to act was a signal to Putin to retake Crimea and support the ethnic Russian revolt in eastern Ukraine. Where is the evidence for this view? Putin doubtless knew that any sane president, decisive or not, would not commit the insanity of going to war over Ukraine. Whether or not Obama intervened in Syria seems to have no bearing on what has been happening on Ukraine’s eastern border. The fact is that Obama has acted with greater determination in imposing sanctions on Russia than have his European allies, who have much more at stake than does the United States. The general point to make about the state of media punditry is its disposition to find fault as if a negative disposition automatically reflects critical intelligence.

George Will is a striking example of punditry as the dismal art. He mocks Obama’s statement that the solution in the Mid East and elsewhere is reconciliation between conflicting sides in which there is no vanquisher and vanquished, noting that ISIS is in its essence devoted to vanquishing. For all his vaunted intelligence and command of language, he is remarkably ungenerous, if not obtuse, in his reading of Obama’s policy. Obama is not speaking of ISIS and AL QAEDA, which are incapable of thinking of the world other than in apocalyptic winner-take-all terms, but he is of course right to appeal to those who may be capable of compromise and reconciliation. (Without reconciliation between Shias and the Sunnis, the state of Iraq may fall apart.) He is stating what is desired and necessary for peace and stability, not what is. Nor is he is promising that what he desires will be accomplished. Yes, the world is full conflicts in which enemies look for victory and not reconciliation. Is George Will saying, “forget about the possibility of reconciliation,” that the world everywhere and always is defined by winners and losers? Isn’t the very idea of democracy, certainly our constitutional democracy, dependent upon the possibility of resolving conflicts in which each party comes away without feeling vanquished?

I have not addressed the media narrative of Obama’s failure on the domestic front. It can be summed up by a statement made by “the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee,” which sums up “the latest evidence from polls, pundits and policy controversies attesting to the incompetence of the president and, by extension, the Democratic Senate majority. ‘The increasingly long list of scandals, crises and government incompetence (from Benghazi to the I.R.S, Obamacare to the debt, to the Bergdahl affair, to negotiating with the Taliban, to the VA scandal, to the situation in Iraq) have created an extremely toxic environment for Democrats.’” (Jackie Calmes, NY Times, August 14, 2014). This summary narrative is reported without a resisting commentary. We learn nothing about the achievements of Obamacare, or about exaggerations and distortions of the behavior of the I.R.S. by the Republicans (the organizations, liberal as well as conservative, vetted by the I.R.S. were faux self-described welfare organizations that are really political PACS), or the long standing problems in the VA that preceded the Obama Administration or, the originating cause of all our problems in Iraq (the behavior of the party in power that preceded the present Administration). We should expect nothing less from the party that issued this statement about the Obama supposed failures. What we should also expect is a fair, corrective narrative from the reporter of the statement. Which is not to say that such a narrative would absolve the Obama Administration of all responsibility for its problems. But it would place the major responsibility for the radical dysfunctionality of our federal government on the legislative obstructionism of Republican House of Representatives. As Norman Orenstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute have convincingly shown in their book, It’s Even Worse than You Think: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, the “balanced” view of equal responsibility on both sides is a false equivalence.

The pleasure of unreliable narrative in fiction is that it challenges the reader to remake the narrative in his own imagination in order to get at the truth of the fictional reality being depicted. The reader has the advantage of the novelist’s complicity in providing clues for remaking the narrative. In the real political world, there are clues aplenty, indeed an overabundance of information. The problem is sorting out what is true from what is false and misleading with the help of a scholar or pundit one has learned to trust. The first habit one must form as a consumer of news is that of a discriminating resistance to the media without being intransigent. Just saying no can lead one as far astray as just saying yes. What one must always mistrust is the narrative, i.e. a grand strategy that confidently describes a future, which is always uncertain. The media seems always to be asking Obama about his strategy, about his goals and expected outcomes. In a time like our own when all choices for action are bad (have past presidents ever faced so many bad choices as Obama?), his “watchful waiting” (a medical phrase) to see how the disease progresses before acting seems like the best strategy.

The unreliable narrator assumes the existence of a reliable narrator. Reliable narration implies the possibility of objective truth. Postmodern skepticism throws all in doubt. For the postmodern historian there is no objective truth. The political equivalent of the omniscient narrator is the despot, either benevolent or malevolent. The political equivalent of the radically skeptical postmodern narrator is anarchy or chaos. A healthy skepticism need not preclude a modest belief in objective truth (small letters)—always with the proviso that never being certain of getting things right one is or should be always subject to change and correction. This is the disposition of the writer and the philosophical pragmatist, a disposition to be found in our president. Precociously alert to the uncertainties and “messiness” (his word) of the world, Obama is that attractive rarity, a writerly president with all the political disabilities that being writerly entails.

What are Obama’s disabilities? Frank Bruni, an Op Ed columnist for the New York Timesin a column titled “Obama’s Messy Words” (Sept. 2, 2014 A29) makes the case. Bruni is generally sympathetic with Obama’s foreign policy, but critical of his public presentation of it. Obama “has lost sight” of an important distinction. “There are things that you think and things that you say.” He should not have said in public that in the matter of Syria he had as yet “had no strategy.” It is understandable, Bruni concedes, that he does not yet have one, but saying so in public “gives no comfort to Americans” and “puts no fear in our enemies.” Bruni does not ask himself whether simply being silent on the matter would give comfort and what comfort can or should be given. It may be the case that silence or a revised statement: “we are in the process of formulating a strategy” would have been reassuring to the American public and put some fear in the enemies. Bruni goes on to fault Obama for characterizing the world as it is, indeed, as it always has been as “messy.” (He questions, rightly I think, the relevance of Obama’s citing the time of the Cold War as more dangerous than the present time.) The word “messy” reflects complacency, a lack of a sense of urgency about the serious problems facing us. Bruni also faults the president (paraphrasing him) for telling the public “technology and social media amplify peril in a new way and may be the reason you’re feeling on edge.” Bruni wonders whether “the president [is] consoling us—or himself.” He finds such statements “rattling” rather than reassuring. As does the “defeatism” of “reminding us that ‘America, as the most powerful country in the world does not control everything.’” Such statements are not “savvy, constructive P. R.,” and he attributes Obama’s current low popularity to his failure to be reassuring. He criticizes Obama for saying “that the United States shouldn’t be expected to act on its own. Isn’t that better whispered to our allies and negotiated behind closed doors?” Is it better? The open statement is a challenge to our putative allies. The whispered statement is hardly a reflection of the decisiveness that Bruni apparently wants in the president. Whispers can easily be ignored. Bruni is right to point to Obama’s weakness of tone when more forcefulness would seem to be in place, but he misfires, it seems to me, when he wants the president to keep from the public the limits of American power. Invoking PR savvy in this connection is unworthy of Bruni, who deserves a place among the more reliable narrators. What Obama lacks is a Machiavellian disposition, which by definition is a political disposition: politics is not simply truth telling; it is about instilling confidence even when times are bad. It is about knowing when to reveal and when to conceal.

Whether Obama’s transparency was right or wrong for the occasion in his candor about having as yet no strategy for combating ISS, it is hardly a cardinal sin. Narratives vary in their economies. There are admirable narratives rich in episode and prose (Dickens comes to mind), and admirable narratives austere in both (Hemingway is an example). Our political narratives are bloated and repetitive, melodramatic in their amplification of events, the result of the 24/7 news cycle. Relatively insignificant items achieve a hugely disproportionate size in the way they are represented. The president says, “we do not yet have a strategy,” and the sentence becomes a world-historical event. If one suspends judgment of his rhetoric, its tone, indiscretions and occasional inconsistencies, one must give high marks for a progressive agenda, partially enacted.