The Media Today

There is too much news

July 1, 2020

On Monday morning, the Supreme Court struck down a law restricting abortion access in Louisiana—another major victory for progressives following the court’s recent rulings protecting Dreamers and gay and trans workers. On Monday afternoon, a judge in Minneapolis set a tentative, March 2021 trial date for the white police officer who killed George Floyd, and the three other cops who were present and did not intervene. Also on Monday afternoon, the Republican governor of Arizona—where confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are surging—reversed reopening measures, and the Democratic governor of New Jersey, which is not currently a hotspot, took a similar step. In DC, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, told reporters that President Trump was not briefed on intelligence, which the New York Times made public last week, suggesting that Russia paid Taliban-linked militants to kill US troops in Afghanistan. On Monday evening, the Times reported that, actually, Trump was briefed. And Carl Bernstein dropped a 4,000-word story for CNN containing rich, shocking details of Trump’s calls with world leaders.

Yesterday morning, House Democrats went to the White House for a briefing on the Russia-Taliban intelligence. They left unsatisfied. In the Senate, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned a committee that daily cases of COVID-19 could surpass 100,000 nationwide if we don’t arrest our current trajectory; as he spoke, the US was on its way toward registering more than 48,000 new cases, breaking its daily record. Fauci also warned the committee that “we need to keep our eye on” a recently-discovered strain of swine flu out of China; it doesn’t presently pose a threat, but it could, according to researchers, have “pandemic potential.” Early yesterday afternoon, Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for president, gave a rare in-person speech, then took questions from reporters for the first time in months. At 3:30pm, McEnany convened a briefing at the White House; she told reporters that Trump “does read,” and is “the most informed person on planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face.” A couple hours later, the Republican governor of Mississippi signed a law removing the state’s Confederate-inspired flag, a response to the reckoning that has followed Floyd’s killing. Then, the Senate surprisingly voted to extend the Paycheck Protection Program, a COVID-era federal stimulus plan for small businesses, pending House and presidential approval. Originally, the program was set to expire at midnight.

ICYMI: Kayleigh McEnany, media critic

Midnight also dropped the curtain on the first half of 2020, ending a six-month period in which America lived—and died—through a brush with war with Iran, a rollercoaster (and at times dysfunctional) presidential primary, Trump’s impeachment trial and acquittal, a pandemic, and what may turn out to be the most significant civil-rights demonstrations in a generation. There has been, and continues to be, too much news. Journalists often note as much in darkly humorous terms—“what a year this week has been”—but it is also true. Almost all of the developments listed above—and plenty more that aren’t detailed here—demand our attention, our empathy, our thoughtful analysis, and, often, our anger and sadness. But such total, thorough engagement is impossible.

What constitutes “too much news” might seem obvious: loads of important stuff happening all at once. But that’s an over-simplification. Some massive stories—hurricane season, for instance (hello, second half of 2020)—are to some extent random, and even those stories are usually tied to broader, omnipresent forces and threats that demand constant vigilance. (By the way, the Arctic just had its hottest day on record.) Other big stories that may appear separate are actually intimately connected, as my colleagues Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason demonstrated recently. Systemic racism caused both the killing of Floyd and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color; the latter fueled the protests that were nominally a response to the former, which in turn drove forward change, both synthetic and real, across the world. Chronology—which we were always told was our friend—is skewy right now, too. When we urgently report a spike in confirmed COVID cases, we’re actually reporting transmission that happened days or weeks ago, as well as deaths that are still to come.

Big stories coexist in a messy ecosystem of cause, effect, suggestion, escalation, and acceleration. Human beings, including journalists, don’t tend to be good at holding that ecosystem in mind all at once. In March, as the coronavirus crisis intensified in the US, Zeynep Tufekci, a techno-sociologist, wrote for The Atlantic that the media’s failure to raise an early alarm about the coming pandemic reflected its inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics. “Tipping points, phase transitions (water boiling or freezing), and cascades and avalanches (when a few small changes end up triggering massive shifts) are all examples of nonlinear dynamics in which the event doesn’t follow simple addition in its impacts,” Tufekci wrote. Her words still apply to our thinking about the pandemic, and almost everything else.

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The basic rhythms of the news cycle don’t help us. Each day’s news must fill the same amount of column space, the same number of cable-news hours, the same length of radio news bulletin. Usually, the most important of that news is hyped in all-caps headlines, blaring chyrons, and “BREAKING NEWS” jingles—this exerts a flattening effect, making it harder, over a long period of time, to distinguish actual news from attention hustling. At times like this one, when almost everything in the news is actually important, it’s especially difficult to maintain a well-calibrated sense of proportion. Sure, we have some crude metrics for the bigness of news. Recently, for example, FiveThirtyEight calculated that the Times already ran 33 banner A1 headlines this year—more than it ran in the whole of 2016, and substantially more than the election-year average (since 1968) of 10 banner headlines before election day. Intuitively, that means something to anyone trapped in the present news cycle. But the logic of the full-width headline can accelerate at times like this: if x merits one, doesn’t y? And what about all the stories from news cycles past—to do with climate change, forgotten police killings, poverty, and so on—that deserved a banner headline and didn’t get one? How do we measure their bigness?

There are no easy answers to any of this. Media criticism is often about contrasting what big outlets should have covered and what they actually did cover on a given day. That’s always been subjective, but now, with America and the world rushing into an ever-darker place, it feels harder than ever to separate clear urgency from clear triviality. When I started writing this newsletter, in October 2018, the pace of the news felt impossibly frenetic; in hindsight, that time looks quaint. Now, for the first time, it feels to me that to be astride everything of importance is to be pulled apart.

Below, more from the news:

  • Another huge story that’s accelerating: Today, China imposed a draconian new security law limiting freedoms of speech and association in Hong Kong. Already, the Times’s Vivian Wang and Alexandra Stephenson write, it has had a dramatic chilling effect. “Writers have asked a news site to delete more than 100 articles, anxious that old posts could be used against them,” they write. “And on Wednesday, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control—a day usually observed by huge pro-democracy marches—a scattered crowd of protesters tried to rekindle that energy, only to be corralled by the police and arrested over offenses that did not exist a day earlier.”
  • Telling the whole story: For the Post, Kyle Swenson profiles the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, which helps millions of users keep track of COVID data. Staffers at the center, Swenson reports, are wrestling with “doubts about whether the numbers can truly capture the scope of the pandemic, and whether the public and policymakers are failing to absorb the big picture. They know what they are producing is not a high-resolution snapshot of the pandemic but a constantly shifting Etch a Sketch.”
  • Test, test, test: NPR commissioned researchers at Harvard to calculate how many daily COVID tests each state would need to run to mitigate the spread of the disease, and how many tests each would need to run to suppress it. Currently, 32 states are failing to meet even the former, lower threshold. Last week, I argued that news outlets should hold elected officials to specific, quantifiable testing targets, as a way of focusing the broader outrage about the US handling of the virus. NPR’s database is a great place to start.
  • Trump card: A judge in New York placed a temporary restraining order on a forthcoming tell-all book by Mary Trump, the president’s niece, after Robert Trump, the president’s brother, filed a lawsuit alleging that the book is in breach of a nondisclosure agreement that Mary Trump signed with other members of the family. The book’s fate will be decided at a hearing on July 10; it’s currently slated to be published on July 28. Ted Boutrous, Mary Trump’s lawyer, said the ruling “flatly violates the First Amendment.”

Other notable stories: 

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.