Katie Hill’s saga encapsulated the establishment media’s descent from news to narrative. What could have, and should have, been covered for any number of reasons, was ignored for one: It did not fit the establishment media’s prevailing narrative for its issue. The episode definitively shows that in a conflict between traditional news and prevailing narrative the establishment media will choose the latter.
Not since Fats Domino found his thrill there, has a Hill made more salacious news. In short order, the former Democrat Representative went from rising star to fallen one. The crux of the story was clear: Accusations of a sexual relationship with a subordinate. The story was bolstered by incriminating texts and photos, quickly leading the House Ethics Committee to initiate an investigation.
In the aftermath of the young Democrat’s denouement, “double standard” was bandied about. Conservatives saw it with the #MeToo Movement, which had nothing to say about the allegations, despite basic elements fitting squarely within its professed purview. Liberals saw it with Hill’s treatment versus that of men — one Hill herself cited in her final floor speech: “I’m leaving now because of a double standard…”
If a double standard existed here, it is assuredly one more than the standard that the establishment media had in their coverage. The establishment media, as evidenced by their lack of coverage of what by any definition used to considered news, is no longer in the news business, but in the narrative one.
A Real Clear Politics article quantified the curious coverage inequities in the Hill story. Analyzing “mentions” of Hill on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox, beginning in 2018: “MSNBC was the first of the three news channels to begin covering her in July 2018 and has consistently paid more attention to her than the other two outlets. From June 2018 through the end of last month, MSNBC mentioned her 101 times, CNN 87 times and Fox News 61 times.”
That changed quickly: “MSNBC’s mentions of Hill abruptly tailed off last month, with the channel mentioning her only a single time during October…” The story goes on to note the disparate treatment compared to that of former Democrat Rep. Anthony Weiner’s: “In fact, the Weiner story combined received more than 22,904 mentions across the three channels compared with just 329 mentions of Katie Hill (just 1.4% as much)… Interestingly, the majority of the Weiner coverage occurred in 2011 and 2013, when the only allegations against him involved consensual sexting, while the later criminal allegations of sexual communication with a minor received only a fraction of the attention.”
Hill’s defenders will immediately cite disreputable means — “revenge porn” —by which her photos and texts became public. However, that is Hill’s explanation, which amounts to just one side of the story — something that traditional news coverage would have addressed by giving both sides of the story. Even ignoring the photos and texts altogether, the Ethics Committee investigation was sufficient to warrant coverage.
The reality is that, under any traditional news coverage approach, this story had all the elements — sex, power, politics, and an official investigation — to gain it not simply coverage, but major exposure. Instead, in its original form, it received next to none in the establishment media.
The Hill story’s shortcoming was not that it lacked for news appeal, but for narrative appeal.
The story’s elements did not fit the prevailing narrative that gets such stories major coverage. Hill was not a man accused of being involved with a female subordinate; therefore, it failed to fit the establishment media’s narrative of the #MeToo Movement. Hill was not a Republican; therefore, it failed to fit the establishment media’s narrative of Republicans being anti-woman.
Traditionally, divergence is precisely what makes something news. The old adage was that a dog biting a man is not news; it is news only when a man bites a dog. Traditionally too, news got covered.
Currently, we have a very different story, which is why the Hill affair did not become one in the establishment media. Today’s establishment media stories are narratives — a set of points leading to what they deem an acceptable conclusion. Such stories, with correct points leading to an acceptable conclusion, get breathless coverage in the establishment media.
This happens in not just one story, such as Hill’s, or in one issue, such as #MeToo, it happens repeatedly across stories and issues. The establishment media has a current narrative template, not a news one.
So eager are the establishment media to push their narratives that they do not simply miss news in its pursuit, they ignore basics of journalism and facts to do so. This is the reason the establishment media are increasingly victims of hoaxes, which — except for the absence of facts to support them — would otherwise support their narrative.
Because of their narrative-first, not news-first, approach, they are easy — to the point of willing — prey for hoaxes baited with their prevailing narrative. Once caught, the establishment media are not chastened, but continue the unabashed chase of their narrative.
The Hill story perfectly encompassed the establishment media’s transformation with its own transformation.
The story was ignored in its original incarnation because it did not fit the narrative — despite being quintessential news in the traditional sense. It did not get real exposure until Hill’s resignation and her assertion that she was the victim, not the perpetrator. With her transformation came the story’s, too. Not until her transformation, could the story reflect the prevailing narrative; once Hill was transformed, so was the story — and along with it the establishment media’s coverage: It then became “news” for the establishment media.
The Hill story proves once again that there is no end of coverage for the prevailing narrative, and no beginning of coverage for the news that runs against it. In pursuit of their imagined higher calling — advancing fundamental truths, even at the expense of actual ones — the establishment media have lost sight of the basics of their original one: Reporting news and doing so fairly.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.
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