Trumping the News

This just in:
With liberal culture on the wane, or rather perishing in the cities of France, there were many deeds being done both good and evil. The peoples were raging fiercely. Kings were growing more cruel. The church, attacked by heretics, was defended by Catholics. Although the Christian faith was in general devoutly cherished, among some it was growing cold. The churches were enriched by the faithful but plundered by traitors. And no grammarian skilled in the art of dialectic could be found to describe these matters either in prose or in verse. Many were lamenting and saying: "Woe to our day, since the pursuit of letters has perished from among us and no one can be found among the people who can set forth the deeds of the present on the page." Hearing continually these complaints and others like them, I have undertaken to commemorate the past that it may come to the knowledge of the future. Although my speech is rude, I have been unable to be silent as to the struggles between the wicked and the upright. I have been especially encouraged because, to my surprise, it has often been said by men of our day that few understand the learned words of the rhetorician, but many the rude language of the common people.
Would you care to try to date this news report? Hint: I have changed only one word to try to throw you off. The word is a toponymic. That's right: France. The original reads: "ab urbibus Gallicanis," "in the cities of Gaul." The author is Gregory of Tours, writing in the Preface to his Decem Libri Historiarum or "Ten Books of Histories," often called Historia Francorum or "History of the Franks." And he is already lying to you.

Okay, maybe not lying lying. But stretching the truth. Gregory, you see, would have you believe that he was the only one left in sixth-century Gaul who was capable of putting pen to parchment to chronicle the events of the day. He would also have you believe that his rhetorical powers were minimal, that even though he could write, his speech was unpolished, lacking in skill. Further, he would have you believe that, unskilled as he was, the events of the day were so awful, he could not but help put pen to parchment, lest future generations have no record of the struggles between the wicked and the upright that he had learned about while serving as bishop of Tours.

In a word: bollocks. Gregory is having us on. It is true that Gaul was going through some difficult times in the sixth century. There was no longer an emperor in Rome, only in Constantinople, while Gaul itself was under the control of the Merovingian family of the Franks. And it is doubtless true that not all the Merovingians were particularly nice people. But notice what Gregory has already done here in his preface. As someone once put it: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Like Charles Dickens some twelve hundred years later, Gregory casts his story as a tale of conflicting opposites: wisdom and foolishness, belief and unbelief, Light and Darkness, hope and despair.

Were the kings growing more cruel? Was faith growing cold? Was liberal culture dying out? It depends on whom you ask. The problem being, Gregory's account is so vivid, most people when trying to describe Gaul after the fall of the Western Empire default to his ten books of tales, taking everything that he says about his skills and the events of the day literally, without realizing that it takes very great skill indeed to convince people that you have none.

Much like, for example, Donald Trump. Now, I have to confess that, although a connoisseur of Milo, I have not made a particular study of Mr. Trump. Okay, yes, I voted for him over Mrs. Clinton (you guessed that already, I'm sure), but I'm cautious. He needs to come through with his promises to the American people if he is, indeed, going to make America great again (let's leave what that means to me to another post). What he has already accomplished is, however, even more stunning: he took control of the news. You all know how he did it:


140 characters at a time, at all times of day or night, there Trump would be, saying something that would catch everybody's attention and have the entire news media talking about it for the next 24-hours.

Conversely, if Trump wasn't Tweeting about it, it wasn't news. The media frothed, labelled him the worst things that they possibly could--you all know the list: racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic...oh, no, that was his supporters. He was misogynistic, crypto-fascist, an alter Hitler.  The absolute worst person ever to run for President of the United States. Even conservative commentators said so. Vote for him, the news media insisted, and America would be in for the worst of times.

But he got your attention, didn't he? He got your attention unlike almost every other Republican candidate out of a starting field of seventeen. The media labelled him divisive, pitting those who thought of themselves as Americans against...well, who exactly? Did it really matter? At one point or another, they depicted him as against everybody: women, gays, blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, Christians, veterans, other business people, conservatives, Democrats, Mrs. Clinton, the other Republican candidates, his own supporters.

It was almost as if they couldn't stop talking about him. Which, in fact, they couldn't. Because he had already taken control of the story with his Tweets, just as Gregory of Tours took control of the history of the Merovingians with his Preface. And then everyone started complaining about how the headlines about Trump were nothing but click-bait.

Well, really, what did they expect? Scott Adams likes to describe human beings as Moist Robots, controlled more by our bodies and emotions than by reason. I would insist rather that we are controlled, as Terry Pratchett liked to put it, by stories. And stories arise out of conflict. Good guys vs. bad guys, heroes vs. villains, rebels vs. loyalists, the faithful vs. traitors. I have never taken a class in journalism, but I'm guessing you learn this truism more or less on day one. Find the story. Find the conflict. And we wonder why the news is biased.

The point is all news is biased because all stories are biased, even those that are told from the perspective of a third-person observer, because without bias, there is no story. Trump, like Gregory of Tours, seems to understand this instinctively. As those like Milo who have made a study of Trump's Tweets have pointed out, Trump's Tweets, although apparently impulsive, are in fact invariably highly crafted: on the surface, rude and unskilled, but carefully targeted to do what all rhetoric does: capture the audience's attention. And the easiest way to do this, as every good story-teller knows, is set up a conflict. Find the conflict, and the story tells itself.

Which is why diagrams like this one, which I found going round my Facebook feed this morning, are ultimately disingenuous:


The premise, of course, is that one wants to read primarily from the middle, where there is minimal partisan bias, with "Sensational or Click-bait" news sources at the bottom of one's stack and "Analytical" and "Complex" news sources at the top. But here's the rub: All news is "click-bait." That's its whole point: to get you to pay attention to stories that you wouldn't otherwise. Not to mention that some of the most sensational reporting styles (for example, Milo's) contain far more complex arguments than the more sober styles favored by The Wall Street Journal or The Atlantic. More to the point, the chart itself is a kind of click-bait: setting up a conflict between high-brow (The Guardian) and low-brow (CNN), liberal (Slate) and conservative (The Hill), likely-to-be-fun-to-read (Breitbart) with sure-to-be-boring (The Economist). Simply by choosing a news source from the chart, you are taking a side in the story. You are, that is, already biased, just like the news you are reading.

Because that is what stories do: make us take sides. "But," you may say, "I don't want to take sides. I simply want to know what happened." Okay: why? Why do you want to know what happened? That is, why do you care? Why should anyone care about what happened in sixth-century Gaul, even in seventh-century Gaul? Why should we care about what happens to people we have never met, will never interact with, have nothing in common with other than that we are all alive now? Bluntly, we won't, unless someone makes them characters in a story. 

Have you ever paid as much attention to an election as you did this past year? Have the times ever felt so exciting? So poised between chaos and order? So fraught with meaning? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Every history ever written could begin with this phrase. Not because every time is like every other time, but because human beings are always in search of the story, the conflict, the tension that gives meaning to the events of the day. How do you know when you are in the presence of a master of rhetoric? He or she is able to make your life feel exciting by drawing you into the story. Which is what Trump does: turn people into characters, turn events into stories. 

No wonder the media can't stop talking about him.

Reference

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. Earnest Brehaut (1916), with changes.

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