All the myths that are fit to print: Why your news feels familiar
Has some wise guy flipped a switch and thrown the news into summer reruns?
Everywhere you look in your news feed is a story you’ve seen before. In northern Iraq, conquering jihadists have the Kurds calling on the United States for more help. North Korea is again stating its desire to nuke the White House. A virulent contagion abroad has Americans worrying when it will break out on our shores. And, in a rerun of a rerun, a Gaza war of tunnels, rockets, invasions, ceasefires, withdrawals, broken ceasefires, and shuttle diplomacy is claiming a record harvest of headlines.
At home, Hillary Clinton has commenced another presidential campaign as her party’s presumptive nominee. A new iteration of the iPhone has the press jabbering, and police everywhere seem to be overreacting to imagined threats by killing citizens. Even ancient stories, such as the Rwandan genocide and the start of World War I, have yo-yoed their way back into the news, but only because they are marking anniversaries that end in zero (Rwanda’s twentieth and the hundredth of the start of WWI).
Sometimes the news actually repeats itself, as in the case of Clinton. Such man-made cycles as elections, the Olympics, and wars lend themselves to retreaded coverage, as do the natural cycles of hurricane and tornado seasons, droughts and floods, and summer forest fires. Reporters and editors pack new events into old, familiar templates.
But the periodicity of the news has another cause, as press scholar Jack Lule discovered more than a decade ago in his book Daily News, Eternal Stories. Lule proposed that the news was less a pure journalistic creation than it was the modern expression of ancient myths.
Like many all-encompassing formulas, Lule’s reduction of news into myth suffers by attempting to explain too much. But after reading his book, you can’t help but notice how many front-page stories collapse into the seven master myths he assembles (which will sound familiar to anybody who has brushed up against Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces): the victim, a casualty of randomness or a villain; the scapegoat, who is punished for straying outside the social order; the hero, who smites evil; the good mother, who “offers maternal comfort and protection”; the trickster, the rogue who disturbs the social order; the other world, typically foreign countries; and the flood, or any other disaster.
Few, if any, journalists would confess to consciously calling myths to convey the news, perhaps in part because so few of them are aware of the mythic thrust of their work. Instead, the ancient outlines express themselves spontaneously in copy, as reporters, who are usually voluminous readers, seek to infuse higher meaning to the disparate facts they’ve collected in their notebooks, even if they’re covering something as prosaic as a funeral or a legislative battle.
Few readers would confess to myth-seeking in their media choices, yet Lule makes the undeniable case that audiences prefer news when it is fashioned into something more eternal than pure information. Lule writes:
Newspaper sales, magazine circulation, television news ratings, and website traffic all surge during dramatic and sensational events: schoolyard killings, royal weddings, hurricanes, assassinations, airline crashes, and inaugurations. What are people seeking? They’re not going to use these stories to vote for a candidate. They want compelling dramas. They want satisfying stories that speak to them of history and fate and the fragility of life. They want myth.
Among top media executives, CNN President Jeff Zucker seems most comfortable with exploiting the mythic properties of the news. As much an entertainment guy as a news hand, Zucker has aggressively pursued—some would say flogged—such myth-rich stories as the Carnival “poop cruise” and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Ordinarily, a plane crash story becomes a side-show after the initial disaster. But as the fate of Flight 370 grew more mysterious, it also grew more mythic, becoming successful ratings-bait for Zucker’s infotainment network. If there isn’t a copy of Daily News, Eternal Stories on Zucker’s bookshelf, there should be.
Now and again, a unique event that fits no template arrives to unsettle editors and reporters. The Edward Snowden affair is one such example. There have been whistleblowers and leakers before, but no government contractor has ever stolen and spilled operational spy data on such a scale to journalists. Snowden’s leaks make those of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg seem tame by comparison. Complicating the telling of Snowden’s story has been the inability of the press to reach a consensus about which myth Snowden’s story should ultimately be poured into. Is Snowden a whistleblowing hero, a traitor for alerting our foes to our capabilities (and for fleeing to Russia), or just an egomaniacal fool? At one time or another, the media has dressed him in all three outfits — sometimes in combinations of the three — but it still can’t make up its collective mind over which story he represents.
There are two reasons we shouldn’t automatically reject news that’s dressed up as myth by our favorite publications, websites, and TV channels. Used judiciously by the press, the master myths and their codicils can help readers and viewers tackle the world’s complexity efficiently — it makes for excellent shorthand — especially if our news literacy rises to a level that we can identify the news myth that is being served. Just because the press packages a news figure as a hero or a villain doesn’t mean he is one.
The other reason we shouldn’t automatically reject news myths is more simple. After relying on the master myths to guide us for millennia, they’ve become engrained in our psyches. We shouldn’t give them up, because we can’t.
Spotted a compelling myth in the news? Send it via email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. and my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: Journalists attempt to interview a woman who is the relative of a passenger on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, as she crouches on the floor crying, at the Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing March 8, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon