This is not urgent. Don’t look at it while you’re at the family dinner table. Don’t glance at it from behind the wheel during your drive home from work. Don’t lean off your yoga mat and interrupt the few precious moments you’ve set aside for transcendental meditation. Seriously, even if you’re just sitting there doing nothing, there’s no rush. This can wait until later. Like most things on the internet, it can even wait until never.
Allow me to make this point crystal clear: This is not breaking.
But from what I can tell, it’s the only news that’s not. Hence, the word of 2017 is “breaking.”
Earlier this year, several family members and I were standing around the kitchen island in my sister’s house when it happened. You know the feeling. For me, it usually happens just to the right of my genitals. Maybe for you, it’s your back pocket, resting on the desk in front of you, on your nightstand, or somewhere as distant as an arm’s length away. I’m talking about that vibration. That breaking-news buzz.
The split second I felt the vibration in my front pocket, I tore myself from what’s left of my actual life and reached for my iPhone — my outstretched hand swooping down and then back up with the exigency of a gunslinger reaching for his weapon.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should make it clear that I’m a professional news consumer. I’m what one might refer to as an addicted, pathetic, sick, twitchy, impulsive, self-righteous, media-obsessed screen junkie. (In other words, I’m an extreme version of the worst parts of you.) So I had facial recognition unlocked my iPhone X, absorbed and analyzed the contents of the news alert, and fired off an all-knowing — and potentially viral — tweet before anyone else in the room had even laid a finger on their device.
But the media-civilian members of my extended family weren’t that far behind. Before the deluge, my sister and her adult children had never been particularly interested in the news. But that was then, and this is now, now, NOW! Everyone is interested (and I mean interested in the same sense that, in the 1980s, the after-hours crowd at Studio 54 was interested in the idea of doing another line of cocaine). So each of them took in and disseminated the news with the speed and aplomb of an experienced managing editor working the assignment desk in a big-city newsroom.
My nephew was the first to speak: “Did you hear the Post is reporting that Jared and Kislyak met to discuss setting up back-channel communication with the Russians?” My sister smiled proudly as my niece responded, “Of course, everyone has heard that,” and then, nodding toward me, “Nice tweet.”
We are a nation obsessed. The breaking-news tsunami began its dramatic buildup during the 2016 presidential election. (Remember when you couldn’t wait for that news cycle to end because it was so exhausting?) Things have accelerated. Then and now, one person is the primary driver of breaking news (and nervous breakdowns). While Donald Trump’s legislative track record is nothing to brag about (though he will anyway), there is one area where he can indeed claim to be tired of all the winning. Donald Trump wanted to be the biggest show in town. He wanted to be the top story. He wanted to dominate public discourse. Win. Win. Win.
Admit it. Donald Trump is in your head.
And I’m not pointing fingers here. I’m so obsessed by Trump news that my wife and kids have to paint their faces orange to get my attention. When I tell my psychiatrist that I can’t stop focusing on Trump news, he puts down his notepad and we spend the next 50 minutes talking about the latest Trump news. (Occasionally, my shrink asks me to switch places so he can be on the couch for a while.) Americans like to name things after their presidents. We should name an anti-anxiety pill after this one.
We all suffer from PTSD: President Trump Stress Disorder.
The breaking news is breaking us.
Compared to today’s news fixation, Americans were sort of into the OJ trial. Trump news is the equivalent of the white Ford Bronco chase going on for all of 2017. (You can almost picture Kellyanne Conway in the passenger seat and, later, Sean Spicer playing the role of a less talented, less forthright Kato Kaelin.) We follow every twist and turn. You know all the characters, each of the props, and every word from the script (all the way down to which letters need to be in all caps). Pocahontas. Liddle Bob Corker. Rocket Man. Alternative Facts. The Paper Towel Toss. Covfefe. The Wall. SAD! ENJOY!
Anyone directly touched by the story becomes an instant star. Anthony Scaramucci had a bit part for a few days, and he’s flat-out famous. Scaramucci became a household name faster than anyone since Puck from season one of the first Real World. Jared and Ivanka are the Luke and Laura of the 21st century. You know more about Mike Flynn’s son than you know about some of your own kids. The sweater Kid Rock wore in one Oval Office photo is more famous than Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.
Even the people who cover the news have become mega-celebrities because of the Trump breaking-news dopamine flood. The previously well-known people have become superstars (Rachel Maddow is my hall pass—and my wife’s hall pass), while new media stars have been created out of thin airtime. The Pod Saves America guys doing a live podcast at the 92nd Street Y get a reaction not seen since the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan.
It’s a Black Hole…
It’s always on, it’s unavoidable, it’s all-consuming. Other content can’t compare. Why would I settle for watching Stranger Things on TV when I can open my laptop and be guaranteed of seeing Even Stranger Things? The president likes to pretend we’re not watching NFL games because a few players are kneeling during the anthem. We’re not watching the NFL because we’re watching Trump news. (Ironically, both the NFL and Trump news carry similar concussion risks.) Want to take a break from a long day of Trump news and watch a late-night talkshow? Well, guess what? The hosts are talking about Trump news, too. And not yesterday’s Trump news. Breaking Trump news.
Even parody is dead. How can the Onion survive in an era when these headlines are in the real news?
Trump Questions Why the Civil War Could Not Have Been “Worked Out.”
Trump: “I Gave Face the Nation the Highest Ratings Since the World Trade Center Came Down.”
Scott Pruitt Heads to Coal Mine to Pitch New EPA Agenda.
Trump’s Ethical Transgressions Are Multiplying. What Happens If There Are Too Many to Track?
Sean Spicer Apologizes for Saying Hitler Didn’t Use Chemical Weapons.
It’s a Team Effort…
It’s no wonder that we’re all swirling into a bottomless pit of news. But the president and his co-stars couldn’t have created the quicksand cesspool alone. They needed accomplices. And this is one of the few areas where Trump and the media have shared a common goal.
Throughout the year, journalists have done an amazing job defending their worth and deploying their craft in the face of constant attacks and relentless lies. And we should thank them for that. But we can’t forget that news is a product, and the first objective of any news organization is to convince you of the inherent value of the news.
So, buoyed by your interest in the most riveting story of our times, they turned all news into breaking news.
Earlier this year, CNN covered the screen with this headline over its classic red breaking-news backdrop: “Blacks are more likely than whites to be wrongly convicted and spend more time in prison before being exonerated, report shows.”
Breaking news: Racism.
Here are a few other examples of news that was breaking enough to make its way to to my iPhone notifications in 2017.
Washington Post: “No one has seen Richard Simmons in public since 2014. Where is the flamboyant fitness guru?”
Buzzfeed: “It turns out Joe Biden loves the Biden Obama bromance memes — and now we finally know which is his favorite one.”
Washington Post: “Pelosi, Schumer pull out of White House meeting after Trump tweets, ‘I don’t see a deal.’”
That last one came during November, by which time it was apparently deemed necessary to provide updates on meetings that never even happen. I hate to break it you, but now you get breaking news alerts about news that didn’t take place.
My 11-year-old son has been studying current events in his humanities class this semester, so he downloaded a couple news apps. One recent morning, after seeing a notification pop up on his iPad, he came running into my room and woke me to knowingly exclaim, “Dad, did you hear Mueller’s team has worked its way into Trump’s inner sanctum?”
He didn’t click through to read the whole story. He’s not mature or knowledgeable enough to understand its complex details or to place those details in their broader context. And he probably thinks a sanctum is a body part. In other words, he’s just like most Americans.
The breaking-news trend that began with Trump has extended to every story in our expanding news universe. Consider the stories about sexual misconduct that have dominated the news over the past few weeks. They’re important, to be sure. But do you really need to know each and every sordid detail at the very moment it’s uncovered? I’ve already spent more of 2017 considering Harvey Weinstein’s genitals than my own. I’m pretty sure I can wait until the next morning to learn about his latest houseplant affront. And while Matt Lauer’s harassment is big news, I can wait until later to hear he had a button under his desk that locked his office door.
I need a button under my desk that stops breaking news.
But it’s not going to stop. Because they want the clicks. And we keep on clicking. El Chapo wished he was selling a product this addictive. Even in the rare moments when there is nothing at all that qualifies as breaking, the media will delve into the past and rebreak old news. Think I’m making it up? Take a look at this recent screengrab from a CNN broadcast.
But these news digressions are a minor nuisance. The real story is Trump. And there’s no doubt that the protagonist sees our national obsession as a personal win. He’s been able to dominate the news cycle (and every dinner party discussion) while still finding time to spend a third of his time at Trump properties, usually playing golf (stats I know without looking them up because, really, how could you not at this point?).
But he’s not the only winner.
The news business was on the ropes before candidate Donald rode the Trump Tower escalator into the history books. It’s not like journalism is now thriving on every level, but there’s no doubt Trump has been good for business. Earlier this year, NYT editor Dean Baquet explained, “Trump is the best thing to happen to the Times’ subscription strategy. Every time he tweets it drives subscriptions wildly.”
In April, Fortune ran the headline “TV Watching Is in Decline, But News Consumption Is Booming,” while the NYT ran a piece titled “CNN Had a Problem. Donald Trump Solved It.”
And now it’s your problem.
Look, I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t be paying close attention to this story. A madman narcissist is driving America’s legacy of leadership into the ash heap of history. It’s definitely a narrative worth taking note of.
What I am arguing is that unless you’re an editor or a first responder or a member of Mueller’s team or directly tied to these stories in some way, you don’t need to be constantly alerted at each minor plot turn.
You can turn off the bat signal. You’re not a news superhero. You’re just some schmo on the couch desperately hoping the republic survives what has become a historic onslaught of tragicomical incompetence.
At this point, none of that should come as breaking news. And neither should much else. All that’s breaking at this point is you.