The essayist Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded a 2020 Pulitzer Prize on Monday for her contribution to the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” Perhaps never before has a journalism award so comprehensively illustrated a journalistic failing.
You see, Hannah-Jones was awarded the prize for “commentary.” After all, it was, as the Pulitzer committee noted, a “personal” essay. And though it was not free of errors, it suffered from less historical revisionism than the other submissions to that symposium.
But in confirming that this essay is “commentary,” the Pulitzer Prize Board finally clarified a distinction the Times had blurred. Sometimes, the “1619 Project” was opinion and analysis. At other times, it was a dispassionate journalistic venture designed to clarify or even correct the historical record (an assertion that has led to the project’s adoption as primary school curricula). This compendium of essays had many identities, and its slipperiness was wielded as a weapon to disarm its critics. But the original intent of this project could not have been more clearly stated. As the Times initially asserted, this was an effort to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
That word—“narrative”—haunts the business of journalism.
“Narrative journalism” is all the rage, in part, because it’s a smart business strategy. As the abstract of one 2019 study explained: “Views on the promises of narrative journalism stress its supposed positive influence on audience engagement and appreciation, an asset of increasing importance in light of the current crisis in journalism that is characterized by declining newspaper circulation.” And while the concept of narrative is an element in all storytelling, telling a tale in a compelling fashion is not synonymous with the prosecutorial portrayal of the facts in evidence. Indeed, these two objectives are sometimes in direct conflict.
Relying on narrative promotion to hold an audience is a Faustian bargain that may ultimately yield diminishing returns. The promotion of storylines with clear and sympathetic protagonists and irredeemable villains is a recipe for simplification, but life is a more complex affair. Take, for example, this CBS News tweet flagged by my colleague, Christine Rosen, in her essential dissection of a judge’s decision to dismiss a pay discrimination claim brought by the U.S. women’s soccer team.
“The U.S. women’s national soccer team has won four World Cups, four Olympic gold medals and outranks the men’s team, but a judge dismissed the players’ claims they deserve equal pay,” this legacy journalistic outfit averred. “Now, the team is continuing its fight against gender discrimination.” This isn’t reporting. It’s propaganda.
A reader of this tweet would have to click through to the story to learn that a judge dismissed the Women’s National Team’s claims of pay discrimination because the contract the team negotiated for itself opted for a more stable pay-scale than the men’s performance-based contracts. That arrangement sometimes netted these women more money than their male counterparts.
The claim that was tossed out pending appeal has been effectively validated by a tweet that serves no higher purpose than generating audience engagement. You can see why a cash-strapped news organization would find that kind of obfuscation valuable, but a principled reporter should recoil at the perverse incentives at work.
Those incentives are also at work shaping the coverage of the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example: “One day after reopening, Florida recorded a record number of new deaths Tuesday from the novel coronavirus,” read the opening sentence of a Tampa Bay Times dispatch published on Tuesday. There’s a lot we don’t know about this virus, but we have a relatively firm grasp on the period in which it incubates in the body before symptoms are present, and it isn’t mere hours. The introductory clause serves no reportorial purpose, but it does advance the paper’s ideological campaign against Florida’s Republican governor, albeit at the expense of wisdom.
The narrative hunt has shaped much of the reporting on how states have tried to improvise their way out of this crisis. Just as interesting are the narrative-busting episodes that are not widely reported. You’d be hard-pressed to find a right-leaning news outlet taking Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear to task for what a lower court found was a violation of the constitutional right to worship. Nor are you likely to see coastal news outlets accuse Colorado Gov. Jared Polis of offering his state up to a veritable blood orgy of “human sacrifice,” though that is the treatment Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has endured. The most salient distinction between their two states isn’t their respective COVID-19 caseloads but their governors’ party affiliation.
Done well, opinion and analysis will grapple with contradictions and counterpoints even at the expense of a preferred narrative. Establishing the public record need not grapple with anything other than the facts in front of our eyes. But who’s gonna share that on Facebook?