Aaron Hernandez and the Narrative Culture

by dave on June 26, 2013

The news today overflowed like a poorly poured pint. An historic decision by the Supreme Court; a penalty laid down by the NCAA; a global hero possibly fighting his final fight; a NFL player arrested for murder. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the nightly news – the news itself stopped mattering.

News today is a commodity – it is so readily available and so abundant that the reporting of news has lost its inherent value. Twitter, email alerts, cable news channel scrolls, Facebook, it is harder to avoid news than it is to find it.

Journalists have tried to add back in that lost value with a focus on being first; being the one that crosses that finish line and informs the public before any other – whether via Tweet or BREAKING NEWS on cable. But the trade-off for speed is accuracy, and inevitably as the focus on getting news out first takes precedence, accuracy and certainty get left behind. Just ask CNN about their multiple bunglings of the Boston Marathon man-hunt.

In our age of instant information, just the facts ma’am is not enough. We consume news so fast it is like an order of fried rice and moo goo gai pan that leaves us starving for more. We now want to put the news in a broad context, often that neatly fits with our already-held point of view. Is it a surprise we have specialized cable news channels designed to cater to people of every ideology: Fox News for conservatives, MSNBC for liberals, BBC for internationalists, CNN for speculation and hologram enthusiasts or Pat Robertson’s CBN for crazy people.

In an age of too much news, news by itself is not enough. Now, we crave narrative. How does this piece of news fit into the larger story arch of the world? With TV programs blurring the line everyday between fiction and reality it is only natural for our point of view to become slightly skewed. News is just a plot point in a larger story now. No longer do we wait to see how a news story progresses and let it unfold at its natural pace. Instead we arbitrarily assign it to the arch we desire and fit the reality to what we want to see.

Aaron Hernandez’s murder charges this morning for all intents and purposes were the 35 minute mark of this particular episode of Law and Order. There was the death and then an investigation – neither of which we were allowed to see – that led to this moment. Coming up after this commercial break will be the trial and ultimate verdict. Will there be a twist in the final scene, where he is found innocent a’ la OJ? Will he cop a plea and skate with a smirk on his face like a rich upper-east side college kid caught doing something at a frat party or (back in this reality) Ray Lewis? We won’t know for months, so rather than wait or try to learn more facts, we will instead project what we expect to happen or have seen happen before on TV.

I am not a Hernandez fan – he is a Gator and a Patriot which in my book makes him marginally less likable than a Republican Texas state Senator – but I found it fascinating the number of people that took to Twitter today and definitively convicted or exonerated him. A well-known college football blogger who boasts of a law degree yet spends 95% of his time writing about boobs tweeted that Hernandez was going off to jail for a long time less than 10 minutes into the state reading the charges and describing the evidence. Not presenting the evidence. Describing it.

With communication tools like Twitter a giant information vacuum has been created; we need to Tweet about something and cats just aren’t active enough to fill our feeds with funny pictures. This has accelerated the already ridiculously rushed instant analysis world. We used to mock NFL draft experts for grading drafts in the days following the draft but before the season starts. Now we grade the drafts in real time in 140 characters or less.

A small trickle of information was presented today and to most people interested Hernandez is guilty and can’t rot in jail long enough. That is what happens on CSI at least, so that is what should happen here. We have no patience to let things actually unfold. We have rendered verdict and moved on. By the time the trial actually starts no longer will we be asking if he is guilty, but what his punishment will be.

The only positive for Hernandez out of this culture of narrative, is that Americans love no narrative as much as they love redemption. There is little doubt if Hernandez is convicted (or plea bargains to a lesser offense), does his time and exits jail professing all of the right clichés about faith, wisdom and change there will be an army of sportswriters waiting at the doorway to write his redemption story.

Ray Lewis, Josh Hamilton, Michael Vick have all been held up at various points as shining examples of the power of the human spirit in overcoming (self-made) adversity. Whether they were redeemed – or ever even recognized their initial error – was beside the point. They said the right things, and more importantly performed well on the field of play.

News is consumed and discarded in the time it takes to read 140 characters. But a narrative lasts forever. Or at least to the top of the hour.


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