The causes behind the “great media crash” are self-evident. Last year was a campaign year, which always causes news consumption to spike. It was also the last year — barring his reelection in 2024 — of President Donald Trump. Trump was a one-man perpetual news machine, forever feeding reporters high-calorie, low-nutrition tidbits and serving dumpsters of coverable commotion, some of which was forgotten the day after it was reported. Remember when the White House promoted Melania Trump’s jewelry line or when Kellyanne Conway hyped Ivanka Trump’s clothing line? Sometimes he would uncork two or three mini-scandals a day. The press corps was sometimes unable to discern which of his threats were empty (Would he torch North Korea, inject the ill with bleach or stop the election count?) because so many of the threats turned out to be full (He did have reporters banned from the White House, he did back the murderous Saudis to the hilt, he did impose a Muslim travel ban, incarcerate children and declare the 2020 election fixed).
The saturation Trump coverage was justified journalistically — a rogue and unpredictable chief executive is a very dangerous thing, and if he uses the Constitution as a kitchen towel you’ve got to call him on it. Preserving a record of Trump’s transgressions was essential, so let’s not quarrel with the volume of coverage. But in retrospect, once Trump had self-stereotyped himself as a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel and a crybaby, few of us had to read beyond the headline and first paragraph to get the message. We let the Trump Show become delicious breakaway entertainment, served in round-the-clock installments, like a bundle of your favorite Netflix serials. The more we read about Trump, the more we wanted to read about him, and the more we looked forward to the conveyor belt of books about Trump steered our way. We bolted down so much Trump news it’s a wonder readers and viewers livers didn’t grow so enlarged you could make human foie gras from them.
We’ve been indoctrinated since grade school to believe that partaking the news was essential to citizenship, democracy and our American way of life: Study the issues! Debate the issues! But nobody ever told us that a thing that’s a nutrient at one dosage can become a poison when quintupled. During Trumpmania, billions of man-hours were needlessly burned reading and viewing Trump stories that could have better gone toward gardening, parenting, reading, hobbying, drinking, sexting and even sitting on the porch doing nothing. Each of us could have learned a foreign language or learned to play guitar instead of reading about him from day to night for four years. We really should have known better. Guy DeBord (Society of the Spectacle) and Daniel Boorstin (The Image) warned us in the 1960s that our appetite for mass spectacle would make us a target for political extremism if somebody appeared who knew how to use the media and exploit it. Trump appeared, he made for excellent copy and we all got hooked.
Having been towed to the depths by the news binge, we have only now surfaced to reorder our priorities. First, we must never forget the way we let Trumpmania upend our media diet and turn us all into fatted hogs. When Trump returns — or the next Trump uses his attention-grabbing methods — we should be prepared to resist his caterwauling. Somebody should create a browser add-in that would remind us when we’ve over-partaken of the news. CNN could add a product disclaimer to its programs noting that over-watching TV news can mess with your mind and that TV is only safe when taken as directed. I kid, but only a little. Like Facebook and YouTube, TV news narcotizes its clientele. Because we know the media can’t — and shouldn’t — show restraint in its coverage when it covers norm-flouting politicians, it’s up to us to know when to turn away.
If Trump deserves major blame for boosting viewership, Joe Biden should get some credit for relieving us of our 24/7 news duties. You don’t have to be a Biden fan — I’m not — to appreciate the way his conduct has reduced national political news from the totality of existence to something more like a companion. If anything, Biden has downplayed his role in the national drama to levels just below perception. Had we not bolted from Afghanistan, how much would we be reading about him? Sometimes I Google “the name of the president of the United States” to remind me who occupies the White House.
Ask anybody who has successfully lost weight, and they’ll tell you the first task is portion control. To push the metaphor, go ahead and fill your plate with all the news you like, but use a nine-inch plate from the 1950s instead of a modern 13-inch platter. And as you read, consult your sense of satiety and act accordingly.
One reason for the decline the New York Times uniques is the newspaper ended its distribution deal with Apple News in June 2020. But its decline is still consistent with other outlets. Juice my email numbers with messages to [email protected]. My email alerts have a weight problem. My Twitter feed never turns its TV off. My RSS feed can’t read.