Elements of that trend are, from the consumer perspective, certainly to the good (à la carte menus, when it comes to consumption, often being preferable to prix fixe affairs). “Unbundled” news has its role—and its utility. But the informational grazing such news requires is also impractical. Cognition, after all, depends upon a core pattern—the underlying logic—in the external information being perceived. “To be appreciated by an audience, art must be intelligible to the audience,” the Stanford psychoacoustics professor J.R. Pierce observes. Otherwise, “no matter how great the variety may be, the audience will have an impression of monotony, of sameness. We can be surprised repeatedly only by contrast with that which is familiar, not by chaos.” Music, notes the sociologist Orrin Klapp, “develops by variation upon a theme; there cannot be significant variation without a theme.”
And yet, increasingly, theme is missing, broadly, from our news. As Farhad Manjoo writes in his recent book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, “In some ways, we are returning to the freewheeling days before radio and television launched the very idea of mass media—the era of partisan newspapers and pamphleteers. But our niches, now, are more niche than ever before. We are entering what you might call the trillion-channel universe.” As a result, news consumption itself has taken on a quality of itinerancy: audiences, per Pew’s most recent State of the News Media report, now “hunt and gather what they want when they want it, use search to comb among destinations and share what they find through a growing network of social media.” And consumption itself has thus taken on an increasingly self-definitional property: to read The New York Times, or to watch Fox News—or MSNBC—or the NewsHour—or to curate a personalized RSS feed, is, of course, to make not merely a commercial decision. It is also to make a declaration about who you are and how you see the world.
To an extent, that’s nothing new. In New York City in the 1950s, George W.S. Trow points out in My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998, there were ‘Times readers,’ and ‘Herald Tribune readers,’ and the like—and those designations functioned, just as they do today, as a kind of shorthand of one’s cultural identity. The Herald Tribune of the ’50s, Trow writes, was “professionally reluctant to give you sensational information of any kind, lest it damage your soul.” The Trow family was, the author notes, “in our souls a Herald Tribune family.”
But, then, in Trow’s description, the socially self-categorizing aspects of news were a function of informational slant rather than information itself. The Herald Tribune may have “reported the news a little in the spirit of one who’d seen you at St. James Church on Sunday, someone who was professionally suspicious of Mammon”; still, though, in general, it reported the same basic information as the Times and other papers did. Trow, in describing the diversity of New York’s mid-century news environment, could still talk about “the news”—confident, as he did so, that the term spoke for itself. “The news” needed no qualifier.
Not so today. What’s different now, of course, from the ecology of the ’50s—or the ’60s, or the ’70s, or the ’80s, or the ’90s—is the sheer size of the media ecosystem, and the sheer number of species populating it. The more news outlets there are, in turn, the more choice each outlet has about which information to dig up and to share—and the less reason it has to relate its diggings and sharings to a broader cultural framework. To a theme.
How, after all, in a world teeming with competing versions of reality, are we supposed to know what to believe? In all the white noise, how do we ensure that we’re filtering what we need to hear?