Don't Blame the Lying Receipt Waitress; Blame the Media

The media long ago stopped reporting the news.


The media long ago stopped reporting the news. It still does it here and there. An earthquake in Guam. The price of soybeans going up. That sort of thing. But its main stock in trade is "narrative".

That means it tells stories. Stories have heroes and villains. They have dramatic arcs. The main characters rise and fall.

Life however is a lot messier than the artificiality of a three-act structure. But that doesn't stop the media for trying to make it fit anyway. And that means the difference between Reality TV (partly scripted) and the evening news (partly scripted) is tenuous.

In both cases, troubled people come forward looking for attention, and then the media decides how to cast them, whether to turn them into sympathetic characters or villains. Or then flip them around for more drama.

And here's the other thing. The story has an agenda. It tends to have a moral.

Liberals are good. Conservatives are bad. Corporations (except theirs) are evil. Non-profits (except conservative ones) are good. Gay people are victims. Black people are victims. White families (except theirs) are evil privileged scum.

Politically correct receipt victims became a thing. A number of them were exposed as frauds, but that didn't stop the media from publicizing these cases because they were dramatic personal anecdotes, which liberals use as an effective way of bypassing structural values.

So the media championed the case of the lying mentally unstable waitress. Now that her case has collapsed, they'll tear her to shreds, even though they're the guilty party.

There are plenty of crazy people who will come forward to tell all sorts of lies if they find a niche to do it in. The media provides the niche. And it has very low verification levels. And if it gets defrauded, it plays innocent even though it's really to blame because it didn't bother to do the kind of fact checking that it would have done if a religious waitress claimed that a gay couple refused to tip her because of her beliefs.

But that kind of story would never run. It has the wrong moral. It doesn't fit the larger political narrative.

The media doesn't worry that the story is fake. They know that empathy is a powerful tool. And people will empathize even with things that they know are fake... as screenwriter Robert Avrech points out.

A few months ago, a high school girl and aspiring screenwriter came to me for advice. She mentioned that she loved the hit TV series Modern Family and would “love to write stuff like that.” This girl is from a solid Torah family. She’s active in Bnei Akiva and volunteers with Bikur Cholim—an admirable young woman in every way. I asked her what she thought about gay marriage. She knew exactly what I was getting at. Smiling self-consciously, she said that she knew it was wrong, but she really loved the gay characters on the show and would feel as if she were betraying them if she came out against gay marriage.

“They’re not real,” I chided gently.

“They’re real to me,” she said.

The gay characters on a fictional TV sitcom have become real to this fine young woman and to millions of viewers around the world.

People can rationally distinguish between "fake" and "real", but they're not that good at making emotional distinctions between real and fake. Something that they know rationally is fake can still have a great emotional force that is stronger than reason.

That is what Hollywood and its "Fake but Accurate" cousin, the news media, are counting on when they tell their stories. They aren't trying to win a rational argument. They're trying to create emotional identification and turn that into identity.

Along the way they exploit amateur actors like the liesbian waitress. But she's just a player. Don't blame the player. Blame the director.