A prayer for 2018

George Washington called the American political idea a grand experiment, and for three hundred years, we’ve run with that self-concept. America tries things that other countries won’t — and it’s worth remembering that our willingness to take chances has served us pretty well. Last January, our latest and most dangerous experiment began. Though we’d been governed by some shady characters in the past, never before had we handed over supreme executive authority to a lowlife. We did this at a precarious moment in our history: through means popular and underhanded, an unprecedented amount of power has been drained from the other branches of government and concentrated in the Oval Office. The aggressively unscrupulous individual who was sworn in has more latitude for consequential action than any of his predecessors did — and given America’s might and weight, quite possibly more than anybody in the history of the planet.

Because you’re not a complete nihilist, this troubles you. Of all the millions of human beings on the globe, you would not have chosen to hand that supreme power to a reality television star whose narcissism bankrupted several casinos and landed him into hot water in a place as ethically compromised as Atlantic City. Others did. Sixty-three million Americans surveyed their choices and came to the conclusion that Donald Trump was the correct answer to the American riddle. Today, it’s not your responsibility to ratify, or rationalize, or even humor that decision — in fact, I think it’s pretty important that you don’t. You’re probably grasping for some silver linings: Trump’s secret connection with the Russians will get him impeached, Robert Mueller will ride to your rescue, a bombshell pee tape revelation is bound to destroy his presidency, his administration will collapse under the weight of his ignorance of world affairs, there’s going to be great punk rock, etcetera. You’re looking for comfort during days when comfort is scarce.

Buddy, I can’t help you there. I don’t think any of that stuff is going to happen. (Well, maybe the punk rock, but that would have been true regardless of the outcome of the 2016 election.) Alas, I believe we’re stuck with Donald Trump for the next three years at least. In order to get through the rest of this term, we’re going to need to understand how the monster was made, and, more importantly, how not to make another after the beast is done with its rampage.

There are complicated things in this world: rocket science, international diplomacy, the most recent Kendrick album. Election ’16 wasn’t one of them. The Trump ascendancy was the logical outcome of several American trends that have been right out in the open for years. I didn’t think Trump would be able to ride that wave of junk all the way to the White House — I figured that sanity and a sense of self-preservation would intervene. 2016, the Year of Hard Lessons, taught me that we’re farther gone than I realized. We’re not irretrievable, though, and if we have it within us to plot a course correction, now is the time. So as much as I hate to shovel more words atop the mountain of discourse that this most undeserving of presidencies has prompted writers to generate, I’d like to take this occasion to point out a few things that seem pretty obvious to me — though I guess they aren’t, because they aren’t getting discussed enough.

Think back, if you’re old enough, to the media environment of the 1970s. Your family probably got a newspaper or three; maybe a local one plus another with an international bureau like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. A copy came every day. Maybe you read it, maybe you didn’t, but it was there for you like running water. That newspaper was divided into discrete, easy-to-understand sections: if you didn’t want to bother with the stories about Iran and you were just interested in what Charlie Brown was up to, you could pull out the funnies and disregard the rest. Your television was limited to seven or eight channels, and most of the programming was devoted to entertainment. At designated times during the evening, the networks would break for a news show; after that, it was back to Fantasy Island. During major events like a debate or an election, the regularly-scheduled programming would be pre-empted — otherwise, the network chiefs figured, perhaps erroneously, that you’d rather get a sitcom than a bulletin. Above all, there was a bright line drawn between Happy Days and Walter Cronkite; you were meant to laugh at one and take the other one seriously, and never the twain were meant to meet.

But there were always individuals obsessed with the news — surely many more than the network chiefs in Los Angeles ever realized. Somewhere on your block, there was probably a guy awake at 2 in the morning, staring at the ceiling, angry about Jimmy Carter’s sweater. When he turned on his TV, he was confronted by a vast wasteland of static, white noise, and throwaway programming. The newspaper, which belonged to the day gone by, had grown stale. What on earth was happening now? This very instant? The advent of cable TV meant that this itch could, theoretically, be scratched: soon there were channels that promised viewers a 24-hour current events focus with no sitcoms in sight. At the time, my social studies teachers thought this was a wonderful thing. We finally had the option to engage with political affairs around the clock. We were sprung free of our captivity to cheap entertainment and were on the road to becoming an informed electorate.

The first and biggest challenge that the news-specific networks faced was a simple budgetary one. Real journalism — especially international story-gathering — is expensive. Not only does a responsible news network need to pay for the upkeep and security of reporters working on active stories in dangerous countries, it also must maintain operational bureaus in places where news isn’t being made, just in case that changes quickly, as it’s sure been known to do. Today’s quiet backwater is tomorrow’s hotspot, and the only way for a news organization to stay on top of a confusing planet as it changes is to shell out for a worldwide staff of on-the-scene correspondents and editors. Taping a segment from the field is costly, too — there are production expenses and transmission costs, and for every five minutes of video that gets aired, there are at least five hundred that never see airtime.

A network news show had a half hour to make compelling; the 24 hour networks needed to fill the entire day. If they presented nothing but real journalism, they’d go broke. They began to supplement and replace the news shows with panels of employees — experts, in theory, but really television personalities like any other — whose job it was to sit behind a desk and pop off about the news. Cable news networks certainly didn’t invent punditry, but they had every financial incentive to elevate and glorify the pundit at the expense of the field reporter. Certainly it was cheaper and easier to hire a discussion panel than it was to maintain a team of reporters and film crew in a difficult place, and never mind that this practice contradicted the journalistic orthodoxy that insisted, correctly, that a single eyewitness is infinitely more valuable than somebody’s loudmouth opinion.

Along the way, the networks discovered something significant. The news obsessor didn’t mind the transition from field reporting to behind-the-desk punditry. He actually liked it. He may well have known that it represented deterioration of journalistic standards, but it didn’t matter: what he was looking for, as it turned out, was not news itself but the constant discussion of news. He wanted to hear the strong opinions of people who he broadly agreed with, but who might be more articulate about issues than he was. There was a debate raging in his head, and he had a pathological need to be on the right side of that debate. Here we see that the casual, periodical news reader or news viewer was actually saner than the obsessor, which should have been obvious from the beginning, but gets glossed over by people who valorize inquisitiveness and staying plugged in at all costs. Nobody ever stopped to ask: do we really need 24-hour news coverage? Is there really enough variance in reporting or even opinion-having to justify constant engagement with current events? At what point are we simply throwing fuel on a bonfire that would otherwise burn out naturally?

As competition between round-the-clock news networks and other news sources intensified, these organizations started beating the bushes for strategies to keep viewers tuned in — and, just as crucially, methods of converting casual news readers into news obsessors. One timeworn tactic: blurring the lines between those discrete sections of the paper. But celebrity-worship only gets a news agency so far. After awhile, reports of Bruce Springsteen’s exploits get just as tiresome as those of the President, who, to millions of half-committed political observers, is essentially a celebrity. Exhaustive coverage of the Boss might please rock and roll maniacs who can’t get enough Springsteen, but it does nothing for those outside the cult. Eventually editors embraced the awful human truth that the generalist audience for a story about a triumphant Springsteen concert was far smaller than the audience would be for a story about Springsteen falling down and wetting his pants. And if Springsteen, or someone with a similarly large following, could ever be persuaded to fall down and wet his pants every day in a slightly different way, well, then there’d really be something cooking.

You might have a weakness for celebrity trainwreck stories yourself; if they’re a guilty pleasure for you, you’re hardly alone. For the educated employees of round-the-clock news operations struggling to justify their existences, celebrity trainwrecks are a godsend. Every day there’s a new peg: what crazy thing did Celebrity X just do or say? What fresh madness has motivated Michael Jackson to act as he does? Where did Britney Spears deposit her baby last night? All journalists handling this stuff know that it’s toxic sludge, but they’ll muck around it it anyway because they can’t resist drawing a crowd. Of course, celebrities can’t always be counted on to demean themselves in public. Hence the need to manufacture figures who actively court humiliation and are impervious to ridicule. Throughout the ’80s, the media began to cooperate with the ambitions of attention-hungry human cartoons — people whose personalities fit the broad strokes of some actual activity — whose entire purpose was to be pilloried.

Or so we thought. It was right around this time that Donald Trump first started banging his own poorly-tuned drum in the town square. From the very outset, it should have been apparent to anybody who was paying attention that he was a celebrity trainwreck version of a businessman, a talent-free media-generated hallucination, and that his publicized fluctuations in fortune were the financial equivalent of Oprah’s various weight gains and losses. The ’80s were years of financial insecurity and populist fist-shaking at the Masters of the Universe; Trump was never one of those, but his lavish overspending, gauche tastes, and blatant overcompensation via gross womanizing made him a Symbol, and symbols are crucial to storytelling. Nothing about Trump was particularly entertaining, so the press instead made believe he was newsworthy — and kept the trainwreck rumbling along on the front pages and lead stories. In order to justify his prominent position in what was starting to be called the news cycle (stop and think about that term for a minute), journalists had to pretend that he was some kind of brilliant tycoon. He was nothing of the sort; not then, not ever. He’d already started racking up astronomical debts and stiffing creditors, putting his name wherever he could, running his businesses into the ground and making an ass of himself in public.

Certainly there were more than enough wicked businesspeople to go around in the 1980s; why was this clown getting all the attention? Well, an actual brilliant businessman wouldn’t have been helpful to the networks at all. His life looks outwardly dull; by this sign ye shall know him, or shall not know him, as is usually the case. Nobody would watch a segment about that guy. This brings us to the real crux of the problem we face — the ugly, central, irreducible fact about our society that needs to be understood to make sense of the outcome of last year’s elections, but which reporters out searching for the true feelings of Joe Sixpack are swerving around: we’re bored. America is bored. Not idle, cloud-watching kind of ennui, either, but the sort of frustrated, annoyed, ants-in-your-pants boredom that makes people start fires in the garage. Alleviation of that feeling of boredom, one that has descended on the continent like an old moth-eaten blanket, has become our major preoccupation.

If there is one characteristic common to 21st century Americans, young and old, rich and poor, it’s just this: the American demands constant stimulation. Because he cannot endure silence, he needs to be provoked. His value system revolves around impact — things are worthwhile to the extent that they create waves on a line that otherwise stretches out toward a blank horizon. He is desperate for happenstance. Industries that exist to cater to his appetites misrecognized this at first. They thought that he demanded amusement by those more talented than he was. Once they figured out that a sharp stick or an irritant would do just as well, the game was up. Fashioning simple, low-wattage provocations — enough to give the nervous system a shudder — became the objective. This is, by and large, how people use the Internet anyway: habitual checking-in, refreshing feeds, scratching an itch at the base of the mind, desperate for novelty, or mild levity, or fresh outrage, a hand-slap on the engine, little jolts to idle craniums.

The news biz, to its credit, resisted this model of demand for a long time. During the early days of the Internet, serious journalists treated readers as prodigal sons who’d soon come back to mother newspaper, and his senses, once his reserve of wild oats were expended on websites and forums. In retrospect it was adorable that they did, since the writing on the wall was legible the moment the first social network launched. Yet it was not until this decade that the whole house came down in a heap. Spooked by fears of irrelevance, editors throughout the industry abandoned their pretenses in a panicked rush. They erased the line between Walter Cronkite and Happy Days, and began to cover every story as if it was entertainment journalism. The lure of a celebrity trainwreck presidential candidate — a true embarrassment in a position of immense power and influence, with all the concomitant disasters that that implies — was too attractive not to bite at, and by the time they realized what they’d done, the hook was already through the jawbone.

In order to understand how this happened, and why storytelling on the Internet has degenerated as far and fast as it has, it’s crucial to understand the mechanisms that editors, publishers, and producers believed would save them from the haymaker they expected the new media to deliver. The first and worst technique goes by the fancy name of search engine optimization, which makes it sound like a much more scientific practice than it is. In practice, SEO, as it’s called, means larding down headlines and opening paragraphs with popular proper nouns and trending topics that a visitor might plunk into the rectangle on the Google main page. If you ever wondered why every news article seems to lead with the President’s name — even when the topic doesn’t seem like it has all that much to do with the President — there’s your answer. The search engine algorithm has become the true editor in chief of the Internet, and he’s an uncompromising bastard. One with a brutal aesthetic, too.

That editor has become inseparable from his ugly assistant: SMO, or social-media optimization. Designing news stories to be shared on network platforms has taken a hammer to the kneecaps of journalism, and that is because social networks aren’t news services. They’re games, fundamentally, and the object of the game is for the user to gather more public approval and popularity than his peers. Posting on a social network is a kind of small-stakes performance: people are looking to share content that will earn them impressive heaps of likes and retweets. Editors know this, but they’ve been powerless to stop themselves from chasing trends, and they’ve outsourced their critical faculties to the crowd. What plays best on the social networks is outrage pieces — opinions, and other re-heated hot air — and behind-the-scenes exposes about celebrities, and celebrity trainwrecks, that require cozy access with powerful people to tell. Stories like these need a heavy, and Trump fit the bill like a dream. (His opponent did, and does, too.) This is why the occasional Republican alarmism about the President’s awful approval rating is misleading: it underestimates the practical value of having a President we can safely disapprove of.

So that’s where we’re at: an endless procession of stories about the biggest celebrity trainwreck around, adorned with unreadable headlines and ledes meant to jig up the post’s Google websearch position, authored (in theory) by celebrity journalists obsessed with follower count, and crafted to meet the needs of those playing the popularity game on social media. This is how candidate Trump was able to get billions of dollars worth of free airtime and publicity during the election, and it’s how he continues to consolidate his power and authority even as networks and newspapers assure you that his administration is in a shambles and a dramatic comeuppance is right around the corner. There are major broadcast news organizations that do nothing all day but run panels about Trump, and tell every story, no matter how remote it may seem from the White House, as if Trump is its protagonist. Snowfall in the capitol: how will this affect the President?

The United States is a wealthy superpower that maintains the world’s reserve currency, military control of the oceanic commons, and cultural hegemony. Other countries are, justifiably, afraid of us. Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, and Taylor Swift still make the world spin. We can absorb a great deal of tomfoolery and hold our position at the top of the pyramid. Nevertheless, we’re really pushing it, and if we’re as dissatisfied as we should be with misrule by clowns, we citizens of this alleged republic do have some recourse to take. Every electronic device we own can still be powered down. We need to start availing ourselves of that off switch. If journalism has become a constant chase after trending topics, we don’t need to abet that chase. When you see an article with the President’s name in the headline, you don’t have to click on it. Because when you do, no matter how negative the headline reads, you’re voting for that guy all over again. When you see a piece designed to provoke a sensation among your followers on a social network, you don’t have to share it or give it your approval. This includes broadsides from subcelebrities who have rebuilt personal brands on the backs of mass disdain for the President, and comedians who’ve made cheap Presidential satire the heart of their acts. Whether they know it or not, they’ve fallen into the black hole. Trump has become their lives. Their identities have been absorbed into his. It’s disgusting. Avert your eyes.

Most of all, you can reconstruct your relationship to the news industry. You do not have to be tuned in all day to be an informed and responsible citizen. I’d wager you’re as informed as you need to be, and you know all you ought to know to render an accurate judgement on this administration. On most days, a news hour is perfectly acceptable: once you’ve gotten what you need, which is not a lot, you can shut it off and turn to healthier pursuits. That may or may not include actual consequential activism. One of the most painful ironies of the past two years has been how news obsession has taken the place of local political engagement.

We access news differently than we did ten years ago, but the basics of worthwhile journalism haven’t changed: they still involve a reporter going somewhere, talking to people, and telling you what she’s discovered there. If it doesn’t look like that — if it is, for example, a bunch of guys in a studio sitting behind a panel and blabbing — it’s not journalism, and it won’t be salutary to watch. Those panel-sitters have gotten awfully good at laying snares: they will constantly tease a big event that never comes. They will imply that your political enemies are about to be led off in handcuffs; they’ll appeal to your schadenfreude, your appetite for disgrace. It won’t happen, and you shouldn’t want to see that anyway. You’re not a cop or a fascist bullyboy. A government that comes to power in the wake of a sting operation will never be legitimate — for better or worse, legitimacy in America is bestowed by popular consent and nothing but. If you don’t like these guys, you must beat them at the ballot box. Anything else is going to exacerbate the problem.

Friends, you cannot help but have noticed: this President is not worthy of your attention. He’s not worthy of your outrage; he’s barely worthy of your eye-rolls. He certainly does not deserve your analysis, or your deep thoughts, or your best jokes. It is my ardent wish that he take up as little of your time as possible in 2018. Alas, we’re not going to get through this year unmolested — policies that he’s put in place are going to have an awful effect on your life, if they haven’t already. When they do, remember that we wouldn’t be in this spot were it not for the total conversion of the news biz into an operation calibrated to saturate your life with the likes of the President. If we ever want a better class of leader than the kind you might find in Atlantic County bankruptcy court, we need to wise up and tune out. It only sounds impossible until you start; once you do, I promise you you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it earlier.

A very wise woman once told me that hegemony was never as total as we might think it is in our darkest hours. These are dark hours indeed, but those words hold truer today than they ever have. The gatekeepers have gone home, and the crude dynamics of the present media environment are frighteningly simple. Whatever you click on, you’re going to get more of. You’ll pump hot air into the balloon of whatever you share. Donald Trump became the President because we couldn’t stop rubbernecking. If we haven’t learned our lesson by this time next year, another electoral disaster will surely proceed from our addictions, and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.