A Deficit of Stories

by Lee Habeeb
As much as think tanks, we need storytelling tanks — and a way to disperse the stories far and wide.

How did it happen? How did we wake up one day to find ourselves cast as the bad guys for trying to save future generations from a lifetime of indebtedness? Why are we punished for pointing out that if we keep spending more money than we take in, we won’t continue to be a great country? Why do Americans view the Republican party more negatively than they view Democrats, when it’s Democrats who gave us Detroit? And Democrats who might soon turn America into Detroit?

Our net debt is now nearly 90 percent of our GDP, compared with Canada’s debt, which is 35 percent of its GDP, and France’s, which is 86 percent of its GDP, as Mark Steyn pointed out in a recent column on NRO. And we’re the bad guys? When you add up all of our debts and obligations, every American family is on the hook to creditors for nearly $750,000. And the government shutdown was the problem?

How did that happen?

It’s simple. We’re losing the debate about our deficits, and many other things, because we have a deficit of our own — a storytelling deficit.

How did the Left accumulate almost all of the important media conglomerates and then get them to sing from the same playbook? And do the bidding of one political party at the expense of another?

In 2004, New York Times reporter John Tierney wrote a story about the political leanings of reporters. Among ordinary Americans, there was an even split between those who favored President Bush and those who preferred Senator John Kerry in the presidential race. But when Tierney asked 153 journalists anonymously if they wanted Kerry to beat Bush, national reporters said yes at the astonishing rate of twelve to one.

How did that happen?

It’s simple. The Left takes the business of media ownership and storytelling seriously. We don’t. That’s ironic, given that we take ownership and business seriously when it comes to nearly every other walk of life. The Left knows that serious people, if they want dominance in their field, must own the distribution pipelines. Just ask the Koch brothers or Walmart. They didn’t complain about pipeline bias. They built pipelines — and made fortunes.

The loyal soldiers of the Left have turned their media pipeline into political fortunes. And they’ve reaped wins not only in electoral politics, but also in shaping how Americans view themselves and the world, how they think about risk-taking, work, private property, capital, family, and even God.

“Those who tell the stories rule society,” Plato once said. And the poet Muriel Rukeyser said, “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” Stories are packed not with hard data but with something far more powerful: emotional data. That’s why we remember them and why they’re so easily transported, even through generations. Stories stir our souls.

If Plato were around today, he’d have to add this: “Those who own the networks run the culture.” What an advantage ownership confers.

Take the shutdown. Whatever your view on the tactics, you have to note that the media spin was remarkable. From Jon Stewart to Wolf Blitzer, from ABC News to NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC, the story was the same: Extremist Republicans held the country hostage for their own political advantage while a heroic President Obama held steadfast to principle, refusing to negotiate with domestic terrorists.

The impact of this mass-media advantage is incalculable. Indeed, it is so powerful that it creates an effect much like the Stockholm syndrome. We conservatives begin to feel as if we’re hostages or a beleaguered minority in our own country, though we know we’re not. We begin to placate those who hold more power, and we fall to arguing among ourselves. And soon, our internal family squabble itself becomes fodder for the media. And when we vent, we become the very caricature of ourselves that the media created.

That’s the power of media ownership: A small group of people can have a profound impact on the culture. Indeed, it is a form of asymmetric warfare that the Left is fighting against its own country. They’re reaping huge rewards for their investments: They’re winning.

The question we must ask is this: Where are our versions of these mass-media platforms? We have a few. In 1996, Roger Ailes, with help from Rupert Murdoch, launched Fox News. It didn’t take long for Fox to double CNN’s daily audience, even though CNN had a 16-year head start.

We’ve had success in talk radio. I know, because I helped launch Laura Ingraham’s show in 2001. I help run Salem Radio Network, which gives a platform to Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt.

But we are not telling enough stories. Mostly, we’re preaching to the choir. Not a bad thing, because choirs need to be fed, but why don’t we own more distribution channels and content providers? Do we believe we can reason our way to victory, using our superior arguments to win back our country?

If so, the factually inclined among us forget two important facts: (1) Most human beings get their information through stories, and (2) most Americans don’t like the smart guy in the room who is telling us what to think, even if that guy believes a lot of what we believe.

Regrettably, we have too few people communicating our story effectively, which is the story of free enterprise and the American character. We’ve developed a deep bench of Ph.D.’s and invested billions in our great think tanks, but we’ve invested almost nothing when it comes to telling stories and making venues where we can share those stories.

If we had our own version of NPR, an organization we love to mock but which has 35 million listeners — 35 million! — we’d see storytellers come out of the woodwork, just as an army of pundits came out of the woodwork to populate Fox News. Nothing prompts supply like demand!

Indeed, the power of owning our own version of a distribution outlet such as NPR would be all-encompassing, because the distributor has the power to shape content and train a generation of stars and storytellers. Their stories could reach independents and a new generation of listeners and viewers, because it wouldn’t take much to turn our version of NPR into television, podcasts, apps, live streams, and content that can be shared on Facebook and YouTube.

We must challenge our most generous donors to dream big and reverse-engineer some of the Left’s most effective storytelling conglomerates. In the past two presidential cycles, GOP donors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads. What do they have to show for their investment? Worse, those advertising dollars filled the coffers of media conglomerates whose news and programming caricature us each and every day. We’re funding the enemy’s networks, and we’re the smart business people?

Don Hewitt, the genius behind 60 Minutes, was asked why the show he created was so successful. “Tell me a story,” he said, “one with a beginning, middle, and end.” He knew that storytelling matters. Stories have good guys and bad guys, conflict and resolution.  

In the liberal universe, the bad guys are corporations, millionaires, Christians, Israel, The U.S. Military, billionaires, the Founding Fathers, and energy producers, to name a few. The good guys are journalists, trial lawyers, union leaders, Palestinians, and government agencies, all there to protect good guys from the bad guys. Us.

We need not be depressed by this state of affairs. We are the people who believe in building things. We know that one or two innovators can change everything.

We need our big donors — most of them big dreamers themselves — to invest in a few good men and women who will construct new distribution platforms and storytelling tanks. Invest big, and let those people hire people who look and sound like America, who like America, and who share America’s values. Then watch the audience come, and revenue, too. And watch us shape the cultural narrative for a change.

Let’s stop complaining about our storytelling deficit, about the media bias and our media-pipeline problem. It’s time to construct our own.

How hard could it be? After all, liberals did it.

— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.