It’s All About the Narrative: Lance Armstrong, the Fake Dead Girlfriend, and our toxic politics

Much of the air in our 24-hour news cycle the last couple of days has been sucked up by a couple of stories of deception from the sports world.  Wednesday afternoon, Deadspin released a well-reported story that showed that the dead girlfriend of Notre Dame standout linebacker Manti Te’o was a hoax.  Not only did Lennay Kekua not die a day after Te’o’s grandmother (and just days before a critical game with Michigan State), she never even existed.

Concurrently, we’ve all heard far too much about Lance Armstrong finally confessing to what had become crystal-clear months ago:  that he had engaged in years of blood doping and use of performance-enhancing drugs in order to win his seven consecutive Tour de France titles.

Both these stories were propelled, amplified, and sold by the media.  Why?  Because they had compelling narratives.  Te’o wasn’t just a great football player, but one overcoming great personal tragedy.  The story of the player who doesn’t stop to grieve but keeps playing — and playing well — is one of the most cherished in all of sports.  And it wasn’t happening at some backwater college — it was happening at Notre Dame.  The home of George Gipp.  And Rudy.  The legend of Te’o, the leader of a fearsome Fighting Irish defense that led the team to an undefeated regular season and an unlikely appearance in the national championship game grew and grew and grew as a result.

Armstrong’s story fit one of our time-honored narratives  as well — the story of the athlete who overcomes injury or illness to reach greater heights.  (Like this one.)  We all knew that cycling was a cesspool of doping and performance-enhancing drugs.  We saw literally dozens of riders per year get kicked out of the Tour de France for violations of rules.  Credible sources were saying Armstrong was violating the rules as early as 2001, but there was always just enough plausible deniability to keep the Armstrong legend alive — he “never failed” a drug test, or the people making the accusations were flawed.

The media was happy to lap up these stories because they fit the narrative and were easily sellable.  Sports Illustrated reporter Pete Thamel uncovered a number of red flags on the Te’o story.  He couldn’t find an obituary or funeral notice.  Searches on Kekua and her brother turned up nothing.  Calls to Stanford produced no record of her being a student.  No details were found on the supposed car crash that had put Kekua into a coma in April.  How was this handled?

You were able to write around it,” Thamel told radio host Dan Patrick.  ESPN made similar mistakes.

Meanwhile, Armstrong had a steady group of stenographers willing to sell his story.  The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins is at the top of that list, although even now, she still seems nonplussed by the whole scenario.  It helped that Armstrong was legitimately involved in doing good things for cancer research, treatment, and prevention.  Such things helped keep Armstrong’s image largely pristine even in the face of mounting evidence of doping and decisions in his personal life that would have otherwise been more heavily questioned (such a dumping his wife and father of his first three children — the one who stood by him through his cancer treatments — for a singer).  Narrative trumped reality.

So, it’s really no surprise that many in the media are puffing their chest and pointing their fingers at SI and ESPN for their egregious mistakes in fact-checking.  But, really, who are they to talk?  Seemingly everything these days is all about the narrative.  And they’ve been just as guilty of peddling narratives as everyone else.  Reporters swallowed the Republican narrative about Al Gore’s “lies” during the 2000 campaign.  The Republican primary campaign in 2012 was case study in media-driven narratives that came to overrule the news actually happening on the ground, as the media tried them all out on a one-by-one basis to see which one would become the anti-Mitt Romney candidate.

It’s gotten to the point where messaging — creating the narrative — is far more important to politicians than actually having ideas or getting things done.  Mitt Romney ran for President in 2012 with a “plan” that contained for tax cuts, tax reform, and spending cuts.  Yet he offered no details of what the tax reform or spending cuts would be. He chose to run on narrative instead of specifics.

One need only look at the fiscal cliff fiasco to see more evidence of that.  Politicians of both parties conspired to create a fake crisis that could be used to push their preferred narratives — all the way to the brink of putting the country’s economy at risk.  You can’t govern a country when your primary goal is selling narrative instead of doing stuff to make people’s lives better.  It’s toxic to getting the job done.

Listen, it’s certainly important for politicians to be able to articulate what their values and beliefs are.  But it’s far more important to have politicians who are able to get things done.  We need more politicians who are willing and able to bypass an open microphone in order to do the work we pay them to do.  We need more journalists willing to be skeptical and not just buy the narrative or report the “view from nowhere”.  And we need a public less willing to just accept what journalists are feeding to you every night.

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One Response to “It’s All About the Narrative: Lance Armstrong, the Fake Dead Girlfriend, and our toxic politics”

  1. He chose to run on narrative instead of specifics. As did Obama. Nothing to see here.

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