In Scriptwriting, We Call It A “Yes-No-Yes-No” Argument; In Cable News They Call It “Cable News”

A confession: though I write scripts for a living, I despise reading the damned things. It’s not necessarily the scriptwriter’s fault; the screenplay format itself defeats many a talented writer. But, storytelling itself can defeat writers too — especially when they’re mediocre at it. Journalists are storytellers first and foremost. Their canvas is the present or a deep dive into something from the past that helped shape and explains the present. But, regardless of when the story you’re telling takes place, the principles of storytelling remain the same. It’s all about adding information, scene by scene, to propel the story forward through all its good parts to a satisfying conclusion. Scenes that don’t add information don’t belong. Instead of moving the story forward, pointless scenes bring the story to a halt — or tell a different story — their own. Or, more likely, no story whatsoever.

The epitome of the utterly useless scene is two characters engaged in a “yes-no, yes-no” argument that literally goes nowhere. Scenes don’t necessarily have to have the words “yes” and “no” to be “yes-no” scenes. They just have to contain an argument that goes on and on without actually getting anywhere. You know, like the American news media reporting any story that isn’t a royal wedding.

With the Donald Trump story, the “yes-no, yes-no” scene often began with Trump doing something outrageous — like giving away secrets or backing Vlad Putin’s agenda over our own. The news media would look to the rest of the GOP, expecting them to be just as shocked as the press was pretending to be. Yet the Republicans never flinched. Their loyalty to Trump never faltered. “Why do the Republicans remain so loyal to Trump?” our news media talking heads would demand to know.

The talking head panel would then kick the question around — same as they did the day before and the day before that. That they kept having the same damned conversation wasn’t because an answer was so elusive and hard to tease out from the shadows. No, it was because our news media — insisting that “both sides do it” — have made themselves incapable of framing any story correctly. If you truly believe that “both sides do it”, it’s because you think that people are all, at the core, alike; the fact that they take differing sides is just them being “political” — which, of course, “both sides do”. But the two sides in this conversation — conservatives vs progressives — are entirely different in their vision for the future and for America.

Trust me on this — conservatives want one thing for the future (they want it to look like the past as much as possible — the thing conservatives want to conserve) while progressives want the diametric opposite. Unlike conservatives, progressives don’t fear the future. It’s the past that progressives want to get away from — our racist, misogynist, corrupt (and now treasonous) past. Of course, we want to prosecute all those the people who did these terrible things first (as we must). If cable news shows really wanted to, they could make these conversations on their air much more meaningful. But, first, they’d have to put down their cynicism and see the world they’re reporting on as it actually is.

In a movie or television script, the goal always is to move the story forward toward its conclusion. Every scene must both build upon the scenes that came before it and then add new information that will propel the story into the next scene. This requires the storyteller to continually aggregate all the new information into the story — baking it into the architecture in essence. Otherwise, every new scene would start — as cable news shows do — by returning to square one where we didn’t know the things we’ve subsequently learned. That’s how we get to a place where our news media can’t decide whether or not Donald Trump is/was/will always be a racist.

Anyone who says and stands by “Mexicans are rapists” is a racist. He’s telling us so. All we have to do is listen to the man. It’s stupid to ask racists if they’re racist to begin with. How the hell would they know? They have zero perspective on racism BECAUSE THEY’RE RACISTS. And racism, like beauty, isn’t in the racist’s eye, it’s in the “beholder’s”. In racism’s case, that will be the racist’s victim. THEY’RE the only people qualified to answer that question. They’re the only ones who actually know.

Our cable news talking heads can’t decide if Republicans are honest actors or not because they can’t aggregate the information that would tell them they’re not. Honest actors don’t obstruct justice the way Republicans do. They don’t stand with seditionists and traitors. They don’t do everything within their power to undermine our democracy because — being so regressive — no one will vote for them. But Republicans do. And we know that because they’ve been doing it for almost five years now. That’s a pretty reliable data set.

In a movie or TV show, the presence of a “Yes-no, yes-now” argument is evidence that the storyteller isn’t up to the job. In American politics, it’s evidence that a Republican is nearby. And so is corruption.

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