A Time for Tick-Tock

The New York Times’s lead story this morning was, naturally, a summary of last night’s dramatic meta-meltdown: the meltdown of Congressional negotiations over the meltdown of the U.S. economy over the meltdown of the credit markets over the meltdown of…well, you get the idea.

Anyway, the piece takes an unusual tack for a lead-story, breaking-news narrative: rather than simply present the takeaway of last night’s West Wing-meets-General Hospital-esque escapades—that negotiations broke down—it presents a gripping tick-tock of the dramatic events that led to that breakdown.

Under most circumstances, tick-tocks in news stories have an air of cop-out, being, as they generally are, data-dumps masquerading as news stories. Timeline-driven narratives are the ultimate show-don’t-tell conceit, and, as such, they’re particularly convenient as a format for writers who’d prefer to avoid, you know, making a point.

However. In the Times’s case, the tick-tock format works. Not only is a timeline the most straightforward way to negotiate the murky terrain that divides the meltdown’s actual events from the politics that underline them, but it’s also the most accurate way to do justice to a day that really did play out like a political soap opera. The narrative—reported by David Herszenhorn, Carl Hulse, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, with a reporting assist from Elisabeth Bumiller, and written by Stolberg—is masterful, packed with equal parts detailed reporting and narrative tension.

Compare that to The Washington Post’s take on the meta-meltdown, which, though informative and relatively nuanced, reads like pretty much every standard news story about back-room Congressional dealings.

Tick-tocks, however, don’t always work so well. Take this long, meandering narrative, which aired on MSNBC this morning:

Let’s take you through that tumultuous day yesterday. It was 10:00 when they began to meet the House and Senate negotiators. Senate Banking Committee member Chris Dodd came out and said they had a fundamental agreement on principles. Barney Frank chairman on the House side concurred. Robert Bennett, senator on the Banking Committee—the only reason Bennett was there was because the top Republican on that committee, Richard Shelby, did not want to participate—could not go along with the way this plan was shaping up. The last principal there was Spencer Baucus. House Republicans were very angry with Baucus after that meeting, telling me behind the scenes he had no business there representing the interests of the GOP conference to that group—put them in a very difficult position that they are still digging out of because now they are being portrayed as blowing up this deal.

Moving along the timeline, at 2:00, those people came out that we just talked about. at 4:00 they sat down in the White House in that Cabinet Room meeting, that dramatic meeting we talked about, senators Obama and McCain, all the principals from Capitol Hill, leadership and committee chairman, that ended in a deadlock when John Boehner insisted House conservative voices be heard in this plan and they weren’t. They talked about some of the specifics. It was not received well. Congressional talks ended about 10:00 last night with Frank and Todd again excoriating Senator Baucus. He said he did not have authority to negotiate. Put down his white paper, House Republican principles and left the room.

The takeaway? There may be a time for tick-tocks. But it doesn’t come often. And, when it does, it takes expertise to make the tock really tick.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.