The Rise of Narrative Fascism

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National Public Radio began in 1971 with one program, All Things Considered, a nightly news magazine designed to present the hard news of the day but also explore new narrative forms and voices on the radio. In the beginning, the new narrative form thing really caught on, and soon there were other programs and specials doing long documentaries, dramas like Star Wars, and totally experimental new stuff on NPR Radio Playhouse and Options. I walked in the door in March of 1983 with a bag of tapes and an idea for a story and was given access to editing rooms and production studios with editorial feedback from the most creative minds in the business — Larry Massett, Joe Frank, Alex Chadwick, Art Silverman, Keith Talbot, and Ira Glass, to name a few. Back then, the third floor at NPR was swarming with creative genius.

But two weeks after I got there an announcement came down from management on the fifth floor saying NPR was nine million dollars in debt and a third of the staff would be laid off. The hits were across the board—producers, engineers, news announcers—but one who went down was Keith Talbot. I’m not sure what his official title was, but basically Keith Talbot was in charge of finding new ways to tell stories. Keith’s job was to go out and find artists working in other mediums and convinced them to try radio, then he paid them good money to produce stories, then he put their stories on the air. For example, Keith found Joe Frank and Jay Allison, and Ira Glass began his radio career as Keith’s understudy. With Keith gone, the creative people lost their leader and their programs.

Then in the fall of 1983 there was a conference in New York for all the independent producers from around the country. One of the invited panelists was Robert Siegel, who was then NPR’s director of news and information. I don’t remember the subject of the panel discussion, but I do remember Siegel saying Larry Massett’s “Trip to the Dentist,” in which Larry hallucinates on nitrous oxide, would no longer be played on All Things Considered. Things were going to be different now. NPR was going to become a respected news source, with bureaus around the world. No more fucking around.

It took about 26 years to accomplish, but last year when Alex Chadwick was fired and Day to Day was cancelled, NPR finally eliminated all creative vestiges from within its ranks. I don’t really know how and why this happened, but of course I have a theory. I see it as the rise of narrative fascism, the idea that there’s only one way to tell the truth. It happened to all our news organizations. It happened to our culture. The result is the news has become PR for an unassailable and nearly invisible corporate power structure and the notion of finding new ways to tell a story is virtually outlawed.

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  • Noah Reibel

    10.31.10

    Reply

    precisely

  • Evan

    11.01.10

    Reply

    You may be familiar with Peter Watkins? http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/part1_home.htm

    Narrative Fascism is a good description. This is also why I spend too much time during the evening cursing the television and making snide remarks that irritate my wife. How do we fight back? A lot of people feel this way I think and it’s almost as if the mainstream is too far gone to be anything other than what it is now. It has to be something new. ‘The Media Industrial complex’ (?) is ‘Killing Creativity’http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2010/oct/15/ken-loach-london-film-festival

    Great post.

  • Jesse Dukes

    11.02.10

    Reply

    I really enjoyed your presentation at Third Coast and I wish I’d had a chance to say “hi” in person. I agree that it’s a shame that in the long tension between a news approach and a creative approach at NPR, the news culture is clearly ascendant, at least for now. But to say: “NPR finally eliminated all creative vestiges from within its ranks” is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    NPR is too big and complex organization to generalize about. I know many people my age or younger (I’m 33) who have just started working at NPR or in affiliates who grew up listening to radio produced by the people you call “the best creative minds in the business”¬—Radio people who are in the organization to make cool radio. They don’t have any power and have to listen to their editors and bosses—for now—but some day, they will have power in the organization, and there’s reason to believe things may change and shift again. And, there are people with power who do care about finding different ways to tell important stories—and this still happens from time to time, even on the newsmagazines. There are lots of energetic and creative people working for NPR still. But as an organization scales up, it becomes less about openness and experimentation and more about standards and practices.

    In the meantime, yes it’s a shame that the standards and practices promote a kind of middle-of-the-road blandness that’s confused for objectivity. And yes, that gives comfort to the people and powers that benefit from the status quo. It’s a shame that Alex Chadwick and the other Standard Bearers for more creative approaches have been shoved aside. It’s a shame that these are hard times for people trying to tell important stories in a creative way—that you have to be creative about making a living, not just telling a story. I’m just not ready to believe the hard times will last forever and I expect NPR still has an important role to play.

  • Amber

    11.04.10

    Reply

    It’s true. Why does it seem like such an inevitable curse that once something becomes an institution experimenting with the medium becomes some kind of non sequitur?

    Still, I should hope that it’s not just a matter of waiting for our turn at the helm.

    NPR now being what it is has to protect their Newsbrand, understandable I suppose. But couldn’t there be some room in their vast well of resources for bringing in some innovation?

    Gregory Whitehead, in a previous transom discussion, suggested getting “station managers and boards to commit a mere one percent of their total budget to create an artist in resident position.” I like ideas like that because they sound reasonable and possible to do right now (or at least, perhaps, as soon as the economy improves).

    In any case, NPR now knows that they are losing market share due to studies like this one:
    http://www.current.org/audience/aud1017npr-opportunities.shtml
    …so perhaps as they reevaluate some of their approaches, inroads to more creative, inclusive and even (gasp) more experimental ways of telling a story may become possible.

  • Joseph Tracy

    11.26.10

    Reply

    I feel that more has been subverted and made to fit a particular narrative than the way, the techniques, the creativity by which truth is presented. The core story is always built around the premise that political party leaders tell the truth and represent the spectrum of American thought, that corporate capitalism is reasoned, successful, life improving, and a product of natural market forces and cumulative individual choices, that soldiers are heroes who are defending us from terrorists intent on destroying the last outposts of freedom fair play, and personal opportunity.

    In this context even a story like the now conveniently forgotten story that 80% of citizens across the political spectrum opposed the bank-bailouts never prompts NPR to pose the logical question of how you can claim to have representative government if 80% have no effective voice in changing a decision that will cost them and benefit a few wealthy political donors.

    Telling the reassuring and profoundly flawed narrative I describe above in creative or experimental ways is not the answer. Unless the creative potential of the medium is combined with a true diversity of uncensored points of view including the non orthodox views that predicted the sub -prime crash, that predicted the horrific failures in Iraq, that call for policies to address climate change, the boredom that comes from narrowed creative flexibility will be the least of our problems as radio listeners or citizens.

  • Morningbear

    6.23.15

    Reply

    Didn’t most of our fathers(Boomer ’46) fight against and try to make facism a lifestyle most undesireable to the human condition? I was raised when anything facist occurring in composition or discussion was halted and often a cause for discipline? Hughtiness and undeserved certainty were hallmarks of facsist thinking. Are we ,the people, makeing the same public mistake that the Volksdeutshe made by trusting their government to profiteers and megalomaniacs in the early 1930s? I remember people like Senator Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover who tried to create specters of evil via communist to cover fascist plans for our future. Such media news production as on Fox and CNN is opinion about news and not the news I pick up on the shortwave from say Australia or Canada. The might of certainty does not make justice.

  • Morningbear

    6.23.15

    Reply

    Sorry about the punctuation and spell chacker errors.

  • Rylan Gibvens

    8.25.16

    Reply

    NPR certainly seems a poster child for the rise of narrative fascism. I used to listen to it more regularly, now I barely tune in. It used to be much less biased, regardless of being creative or not. I suspect this is why it is losing market share. When any utterance by Trump is blown up into a representation of his ability to govern and any possibly illegal/certainly immoral action by Hillary is glossed over we have a problem. However, the narrative form is a bigger issue. In fact, it is the narrative format that allows such overwhelming yet subtle slanting of the ‘news’. If I choose to tell a story about a serial killer I can create a narrative which portrays that killer in any light I wish. If I present an even handed report based on fact over feeling it allows the listener to truly make up their own mind. Unfortunately the role of the narrative is to trick the listener into believing they have opened their mind with new facts when in reality they have simply had their emotions subconsciously manipulated.

    The larger effect of this is a decreased ability to think critically in the audience at large…and this is not just NPR but pretty much all the mainstream and most of the other ‘news’ media. My father in law, an atheist with nothing against same sex marriage, commented to me that he was shocked at the speed with which public opinion was swayed on the issue. Our disagreement on that particular issue of same sex marriage aside, we both agreed that the ability of the media to change opinions is not healthy for a democracy. We both also recognized that it is not simply the ‘news’ media but the confluence of ‘news’, entertainment and other forms of media under one roof at a handful of mega communications organizations. Thus whatever the corporation(s) want to promote or change perspective on are handled on all fronts so that even if a majority oppose a topic it can be made to look as if the majority are for it and over time the topic is sensitized in a way such that the public becomes inexorably convinced that the perspective chosen by the media juggernaut ought to be their own. The narrative, in the news, on sitcoms, late night talk, early morning talk and myriad other formats becomes ubiquitous and all but a few ultimately accept it as the truth. The real beauty of the method is that it is not so much a sin of commission as one of omission so the listener doesn’t really get a chance to say ‘that is not true’, because the overt message is factual…but only in the facts it presents while leaving out other facts and using voice and tone as much as content to shape the viewers perception.
    In short, the narrative never had any legitimate place within the news environment; so this article makes a valid point but falls short in fully assessing the problem.

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