Thursday, February 21, 2008

Obama's Act II Begins

Is there a growing wave of criticism against Barack Obama? I’ve already pointed you toKarl Rove’s piece. Amba at Ambivablog directs us to other anti-Obama pieces here and here. Moderate blogger Michael van der Galien at PoliGazette as dubbed the man a fake and has posted countless anti-Obama commentaries in recent weeks. Even Obama supporters are starting to get worried. Why the negativity?

Sure, some of it is just Republicans calibrating their opinions for the upcoming general election. But, as the above links show, this is much more than a Karl Rove attack agenda. This is something in the zeitgeist. And I think it goes straight to the roots of media and storytelling.

Despite what some want to believe, the media are not a monolithic force controlled by a central brain. If you want to look for biases, don’t look for ideological favoritism, look for inescapable narrative structures. Compelling storytelling demands conflict (so we get lots of shouting), it demands surprise (so we get trumped up “gotcha” stories), it demands emotion (so we get overplayed tragedies) and it demands story arcs, which is where Obama comes in.

In Act I, Obama is the intrepid tyro, an unblemished do-gooder believing in impossible dreams. He rises up from obscurity to capture the hearts and minds of his people. Along the way he does noble battle against the forces of darkness and is positioned to become a great man.

In Act II, the hero always stumbles. His brilliant talents are revealed to have corresponding weaknesses. The adulation he’s received goes to his head. Members of his movement turn against him out of disillusionment or greed. Now the struggle is not just against outer forces but inner ones as well.

We see this in just about every conventional narrative. We see it in politics. We see it in sports (Dallas QB Tony Romo could tell Obama a thing or two about media love turned media suspicion). We see it throughout our religious stories and ancient parables. The media, as storytellers, simply can’t escape these classic structures. Act I can only go on for so long. Eventually Act II must begin.

Detailed criticism of Obama has been a long time coming. He played out Act I as well as any politician can in our 24-hour storytelling news cycle. Now the heat is on and now we see if Hillary (who’s been stuck in her own Act II for months) can thwart the ambitions of America’s newest star. Or, if she fails, can John McCain, who’s had about five three-act plays in his life, prove the stronger narrative. Only one thing is for sure: the media will not be able to escape the lure of storytelling’s classic structures.

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