More than once over the past few days, I have been asked both online and off: “How in the hell am I supposed to keep up with everything that’s going on? How do I, as a non-professional, somewhat casual consumer of news, figure out how to process all this information constantly being thrown at me from every direction, knowing that some of it will be phony hysterics and misdirection, while some of it will also be gravely serious and demand my attention?”
My answer is: I…don’t know. I’m working on it.
Even journalists whose “one job” is to sort the news on any given day are failing immensely at this task — often their “heart is in the right place,” but the task is extremely daunting. For one thing, clearly Trump has calculated that it’s in some sense to his benefit when everyone is completely overwhelmed and suffering from a form of cognitive overload; it allows him to move briskly from issue to issue without staying there for very long — he’s essentially breaking the national attention span by saturating it with information, controversy, hysteria, real problems, fake problems, fights, feuds, tweets, and all the rest. He is keenly aware of how to prod the media into indulging its worst instincts, so a vicious cycle emerges where Trump does something outlandish, and then the media responds by acting outlandishly in its own right.
You have to be an extremely sophisticated consumer of news in order to successfully parse the present situation. There’s a never-ending deluge of sensory data flying at you 24/7, and people who understandably take a layperson’s attitude toward “the news” will simply glance at a retweet or headline, and then assume that the essence of the story is true because it’s coming from, say, the Washington Post. What normal person wants to spend their time analyzing the journalistic proclivities of Josh Rogin, who propagated the wildly misleading story last week that the State Department had undergone shocking mass resignations in some kind of display of defiance against Trump? The story’s central claim fell apart upon a moment’s scrutiny, but it didn’t matter: the thousands of people who retweeted the link and shared it on Facebook, and then the many orders of magnitude more people who simply viewed the story, still have the idea implanted in their heads that the entire senior management structure of the State Department resigned in an act of mass protest. But that’s simply not an accurate representation of what happened.
Another example: one of the first big controversies of the Trump presidency that rocketed across social media was a supposed “gag order” that he had instituted at the EPA, which sounds authoritarian and foreboding. Trump will probably implement policies by way of the EPA that really are authoritarian and foreboding, but this wasn’t one of them. In fact, it turns out that the “gag order” was more like ordinary transition business — banal and expected, rather than inflammatory or extreme.
Now, there’s a certain cynical cohort who will see pointing out falsehoods like the above as somehow inherently “pro-Trump,” or intended to help Trump. But the exact opposite is true. Trump will not be effectively scrutinized if falsehoods, myths, and hysterias are allowed to fester without rebuttal. First, it will diminish the credibility of the media writ large, and the public will be more inclined to ignore legitimate reporting because over and over again the media has demonstrated its propensity to allow for the unthinking propagation of bogus anti-Trump tales. (Yes, referring to “the media” as one monolithic entity here is inherently reductive, but that’s how a lot of the public sees it, as a single formless blob.)
Being willing to point out falsehoods even when that ostensibly “helps Trump” serves the purpose of bolstering one’s credibility, such that when one does proffer criticisms or adversarial anti-Trump reporting, it can’t be easily dismissed as knee-jerk or partisan. There’s so much “noise” out there at the moment that it’s hard to see how individual journalists can cope, other than to maintain an ethos of prudence and fairness, and to apply that equitably to everyone in power.
Here’s what probably won’t be effective: stoking a kind of petty, personal hatred for Trump, mocking of his personal characteristics, affectations, etc. None of that will be particularly useful if one’s aim is to provide a serious counterweight to the harm-causing policies he’s likely to marshal, and already has marshaled. If anything, that superficial stuff is just a vapid indulgence taken by people with little interest in policy, and who are more incensed about Trump the cultural figure rather than Trump the chief governing executive.
The precise analog was on full display throughout much of the Obama presidency, with conservatives (and especially the conservative media complex) fomenting the most ridiculous possible anti-Obama hatred, based on asinine mischaracterizations of his actual political beliefs. No, Obama is not and never was a stealth Jihadist intent on bringing down America from within. If anything, he was a temperamental conservative with incrementalist inclinations, but you would’ve hardly known that based on the wildly overblown, cheap depictions that conservatives promulgated and profited immensely from for eight years.
There is a burgeoning “industry” that will capitalize on visceral anti-Trump animus in the populace — much of it legitimate — strictly for profit. They are what Matt Stoller has aptly labeled “Outrage Grifters.” The types of people who had a direct hand in corrupting the American political system, and now seek to absolve themselves of culpability by directing everyone’s ire at Trump the person, rather than the system that produced him.
So that’s the spirit with which I want to approach my new position at TYT, which begins today. Shunning hyper-reactivity, but reacting where necessary with diligence and impartiality. Not letting Outrage Merchants get away with selling their worthless product, but pointing out outrages where they do legitimately exist (Trump’s de facto “Muslim Ban” victimizes innocents, and that needs to be emphasized). Trying to bring some circumspection and discernment to what is otherwise a wild, volatile, hysteria-inducing media climate.
So that’d be my long-winded answer to the person wondering how the hell they’re supposed to cope with all this: stay tuned.