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September, 2009

Telling the Story of Process

George Packer criticizes Obama's press strategy for avoiding 'process' stories, arguing it's undemocratic and harms the ability to think clearly.

George Packer makes a very interesting point about Obama's press strategy, which shies away from stories that explain the political process. Packer writes that people in the administration "say that the Obama hates 'process' stories because they end up focussing on trivial matters of personality. They also say that the White House wants to give the impression that everything flows from the top."

To which Packer replies:

This last is the one that troubles me most. Even if such a thing were possible, it isn't healthy. I'd even say it's undemocratic. Something as vast and complex as the U.S. government cannot be presented to the public along the same lines as a Presidential campaign. In the end--I saw this happen to the Bush Administration in Iraq--the result is that the White House doesn't seal information in, but, instead, it seals itself off from information. The levers of government eventually stop working because no one in the bureaucracy wants to explain what's going on for fear of the White House press office, which means the ability to think clearly grows sclerotic.

Two things I find interesting about this: First, it's a non-partisan criticism of the way the Obama administration does stuff. We don't have enough of that in politics. Second, I am in complete agreement that there is really value in the process. Actually it reminds me of something Robin wrote over at Smarkmarket about what makes Packer's New Yorker colleague, Atul Gawande, so good: "It's a first person narrative -- and not tentatively so. There are I's everywhere in this piece, and it's wonderful." I think politicians (and the media, frankly) underestimate the value of this sort of narrative.

I was amazed by this during the financial crisis last year. As politicians were trying to figure out what to do with TARP there was an incredible lack of clarity about what was going on. I suspect this was because the politicians were being brought up to speed on how the financial system works and they didn't want everyone to see, but I think it could have been a real calming influence to have someone sit down America and explain what the hell was going on. (For what it's worth, Rick, COO of The Barbarian Group, wrote one of these for the company and I think it went a long way (I know it did for me).

Also, while I'm on the topic of writing, I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference between the way I was taught to write and the way I actually do. Like everyone else I was taught the basic essay structure: Tell them what you're going to say, say what you're going to say, tell them what you've said. However, the way I write here is far more off the cuff. I had no idea I was going to write about my writing style at the end of this post (in fact, this post started as a link to the Packer quote and eventually started to go a little long for the sidebar). I prefer to just flow through ideas, something that doesn't feel quite right in other media (which probably explains why it's seldom done by journalists), but works quite well for the relatively intimate setting of a blog. I guess it speaks to something I've mentioned before: Blogs are more like interpersonal communication than mass.

September 29, 2009
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