The American press is obsessed with explaining Brexit. Just this week, the New York Times published four Brexit explainers. CNN has run at least eight since January, including a video that uses Legos to illustrate the United Kingdom’s customs relationship with the European Union. The Washington Post has demonstrated a similar fondness for the format, posting a glossary of Brexit terms, a pair of “What’s Next for Brexit?” videos, and a clip that promises an explanation for “confused Americans,” led by a “pop culture host.” “It’s not your fault if you don’t know what’s going on,” she says. “Because nobody knows what’s going on.”
This includes the journalists doing the explaining. “Brexit Remains Impossible to Understand,” went one Atlantic headline last week; “What the Fuck Is Going on With Brexit?” wondered Vice. Even Vox, the crème de la crème of explainer journalism, has been remarkably circumspect on the subject, with one headline hedging, “The Brexit Extension Drama, Explained as Much as Possible.” All this apparent confusion has manifested in an avalanche of explainers, each reassuring the reader that her befuddlement is justified before proceeding to deepen it.
Many of these articles take the form of flowcharts and Q&As, each attempting to distill the vital facts of the case into easily digestible nuggets. The Q&As tend toward the humor you’d expect from a biology teacher wearing a trout-shaped tie: take New York Magazine’s tepid “But why should I, a completely self-centered American, care that this happened?” or CNN’s try-hard “Wow, this is… a lot.” The flowcharts are more sober but no more useful, as a distinct fatalism pervades their efforts to schematize the range of potential Brexits. The Wall Street Journal offers a rectilinear graphic reminiscent of electrical wiring diagrams one might find in a washing machine manual, with a discouraging “start over” placed at the foot of the image, as if the designer had already admitted defeat. The Times uses a more traditional branching-tree chart, but each limb is accompanied by several paragraphs of explication which forestall any clear takeaway.
A successful explainer, like any piece of journalism, answers two questions: “What are the starting conditions?” and “What has changed?” The format’s classic use is in spelling out the details of a new legislative initiative, but it has also been deployed to great effect in coverage of global instability. As separatist violence spread through Eastern Ukraine in 2013, the Guardian ran a solid item laying out the political and cultural divisions in the country, and in 2017, when a military crackdown on the Rohingya drove several hundred thousand members of the little-known ethnic group out of their homes in Myanmar, the Times published a comprehensive yet digestible explainer on that people’s precarious history. These sorts of explainers hardly claim to be encyclopedic, but they provide invaluable context for the casual observer. In its piece on Myanmar, the Times provides a clear answer to the two aforementioned questions in one line: “The Rohingya have faced violence and discrimination in the majority-Buddhist country for decades, but they are now fleeing in unprecedented numbers from violence that the United Nations … has called ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’” The article goes on to detail the history of that “violence and discrimination” and the horrid details of that “ethnic cleansing.” By assuming the reader hasn’t the foggiest idea who the Rohingya are, and perhaps only a marginally better grasp of Myanmar’s history, the writer is empowered to simplify, clarify, and then add context.
Brexit explainers, on the other hand, typically exhibit an inability to properly calibrate the reader’s knowledge of the situation. One Vox article from October begins in media res with Theresa May jetting off to Brussels, before offering a “quick reminder of how it all began.” A Times explainer, updated a month later, works in a similar seesaw fashion, leading with the initial rejection of May’s deal before jumping to 1973 and Britain’s accession into the European Economic Community. CNN, in an article from January that’s as patronizing as it is useless, offers a point of departure suitable for kindergarteners: “The European Union is arguably the world’s most powerful bloc. But it’s about to lose the United Kingdom, one of its biggest members.” Another clarifying point: “Britain+exit = Brexit.”
More frustrating than the uneven posturing is how often efforts to, in Vox’s words, “take a big step back and lay it all out clearly and concisely,” lead to writers missing central developments, or even passing along misleading information. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has become a major player in the negotiations. In January, he allowed an initiative that diminished May’s leverage, and in mid-March, he dashed the prime minister’s hopes of holding a third meaningful vote. Yet Bercow went entirely unmentioned in American explainers. Likewise, these articles roundly dismissed the possibility that the original March 29 deadline could be extended. A January CNBC article took Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay at his word that such an avenue would not be pursued, while Reuters stated in December that “the date is set in law.”
Then there was May’s decision this week to elicit support from Labour, even if it means renegotiating the terms she’s agreed to with Brussels. In the past few months, such an idea was scarcely mentioned by the American press. Yet there May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were on Wednesday, spending two hours together in an attempt to begin hashing out a compromise. For a reader relying solely on Brexit explainers, this week’s news must have come as quite a shock. The Post described it as a “dramatic swerve across her own red lines;” Bloomberg styled it as a “last throw of the dice.”
If one were following the story by reading the excellent daily reporting coming out of London, it’s hard to imagine being so startled by this week’s developments. But then, if Brexit were covered more like a standard political crisis, the negotiations probably wouldn’t seem all that hard to understand, either. Opposed interests have staked out competing positions, with a notion of pending economic damage the lone incentive for compromise. The specifics change, but the dynamic remains the same. If this story were framed like one of Washington’s regular funding standoffs, I suspect May’s resorting to working with Corbyn would be more readily understood as a natural, even inevitable, development.
By forcing Brexit into a series of tongue-in-cheek questions and answers, or a flowchart, or a Lego demonstration, the American media has dug itself into a hole. Yes, trade policy can be dense, and yes, the Troubles and the history of the EU are useful context. Journalists should, of course, try to make their reporting accessible. But meeting a reader where they are shouldn’t mean inflating their confusion. Brexit isn’t a four-dimensional chess puzzle, nor is it an episode of Blue’s Clues. It’s a story about a political standoff—if there’s one thing our press corps should be well equipped to analyze, it’s that.