The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was instituted in late 2008, just before the election of President Obama. Widely castigated as an expensive bailout of banks, Wall Street, and financiers, the program also helped to spark the current Tea Party political movement in the United States.
Below, a video from NPR captures the experience of four reporters who invested $1,000 in a troubled asset.
This is a nice little movie based on facts. The reporters invested their money, waited and watched, wrote down the facts, and constructed a story that fit the facts.
Unfortunately, most of the news media seems to do the opposite.
One of the problems the news media is having covering TARP currently stems from the lazy practice of constructing narratives in lieu of facts. Where facts exist, they often are bent to fit theories rather than having theories emanate from facts. Another recent NPR story talks about how TARP may end up costing the US taxpayer far less than anticipated, and may actually return money to government coffers. The problem for the media is that this doesn’t fit the narrative they’ve put in place. And how can you report facts that fly in the face of a narrative you’ve worked months to establish as immutable?
A reliance on narratives means that stories can be instantiated, revised, fabricated, or burnished without regard for the facts. It allows for propaganda, demagoguery, and brazen lies. The Iraq War was largely rationalized through a narrative constructed by hawks in the US government. Facts (e.g., no WMDs, no al-Queda in Iraq) didn’t change the narrative.
A reverence for facts and fact-checking is something that sets apart Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show.” In a recent interview (again, on NPR, this time on “Fresh Air”), Stewart talked about why his approach to the news requires telling the truth:
We don’t fact-check . . . because of any journalistic criterion that we feel has to be met. We do it because jokes don’t work when they’re lies. We fact-check so that when we tell a joke, it hits you at sort of a guttural level. . . . It’s not because we have a journalistic integrity. Hopefully, we have a comedic integrity that we don’t want to violate.
Through this integrity, a comedian has become the most trusted newsman in America.
For ambitious politicians, spinning a narrative of discord and acrimony can energize voters and swing elections. However, facts are facts. When we learn to derive stories from facts, wait for facts to emerge, and not fill every silence with a narrative of infotainment, we will be far better off as a society, and make better decisions as a body politic.