This is a little off the beaten trail for me, but I’m trying to expand my non-fiction shelf. Since the podcast is mostly Cody and me talking about fictional stories, I thought I might take a stab at something different. But in order to avoid veering too far off course, I will relate this to storytelling and how we can combat its more dangerous side.
Matt Taibbi’s Hate Inc. delves into the world of news media, most notably the major news sources that dominate the airwaves, and how they’ve broken from their old reliable ways in favor of views and profits. According to Taibbi, who has worked for many of the major news producers, this greedy grab for the nation’s attention permeates all major news sources. Throughout the book, Taibbi gives credence to how divided the news has become the last few decades, likening the two sides to that of the talking heads on ESPN. What he reveals isn’t anything new, or at least shouldn’t be to the casual news consumer, but this book strikes at something insidious in our society: the false narrative.
What stuck out to me most in Taibbi’s work was the comparison he drew to sportscasters. Growing up on a heavy dose of ESPN, I am incredibly familiar with the debate dynamic within the sports news world. I religiously watched Pardon the Interruption, which aired just before the game-show-style panel discussion, Around the Horn, hosted by my favorite moderator, Tony Reali. Yet, these two staples of my afternoon sports news diet were nothing compared to the pièce de résistance, First Take, with Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless. Pitted against one another, Smith and Bayless would argue, debate, and above all, entertain topics within the sports world. These were usually opposing ideas they would defend tooth and nail, regardless if they actually believed what they were saying was worthy of debate. It was diverting and sensationalized and fit well within the world of sports entertainment. But it was nothing more than just that: entertainment.
What does a highly successful ESPN debate show have to do with today’s news media? Everything, according to Hate Inc. Today’s news media is nothing more than an entertainment business built to appeal solely to its fans. Whether you’re on the left, right, center, or anywhere along the political spectrum, Taibbi argues you are not hearing the full story, but only what the Baylesses and Smiths of the world want you to hear. Sure, there are debates and lively discussions, but they’re no more real than Bayless’ contempt for LeBron James, or Smith’s dislike of the Cowboys. It’s entertainment for entertainment’s sake.
This is nothing new to those that spend any amount of time outside of major news organizations. It’s easy to pick on Fox News and CNN for being disingenuous with their storytelling, but what does the landscape look like on social media? The stories we see others telling there are harder to parse, especially when those spouting false narratives are friends, exes, or relatives. And the news corporations play the role of tossing the grenade in the room and closing the door. They create the debate scenario in online forums and on news feeds in order to drum up the same entertainment happening at their stations. But because it’s playing out among those we know, we rarely see the difference.
How does this relate to storytelling and the great human plot arch? Well, first it helps to know how to spot these stories and when to pull back the curtain to see if it’s worth investing in or not. More often, the answer will be “no” since most people don’t have time for stories that aren’t relevant to their own lives. This should lift a weight for many of you since you no longer should feel the need to invest your time, emotions, and efforts into digesting lame stories.
Second, recognize that stories may appear simple on the surface, but are often rich and complex and seldom have clear resolutions. The Little Prince often comes to mind when I think of straightforward stories with incredible depth. This is how we should view news media, especially when the storyteller tries to frame the situation in such stark contrasts like “good vs. evil” or “man vs. nature”. What lies under the surface? How is the story being framed? What is the story actually about? These questions and many more will help to uncover the meaning of the stories we hear, read, and watch. And hopefully, above all else, the truth.
Finally, and this might be the hardest for some, turn off the noise. So much of our lives are filled with noise. From podcasts to Spotify, to YouTube, to binging the latest television series, we fill our precious time with entertainment equivalent of junk food. Shutting these off, and shutting off the stories they tell, can restore your own story to your soul. Power down the almighty entertainment business for an hour and crack open that Ray Bradbury book you’ve been meaning to get to. Your soul will thank you.
Hate Inc. isn’t anything new but is a worthwhile read. It adds to the body of work that is calling out the false narratives told by some of the most powerful storytelling machines our world offers. For those that are interested in investigative journalism from someone who lived among the wolves, this is a terrific read. For others who simply want to learn more about how the news media shapes the larger global narrative, Hate Inc. is an adequate primer.