The Media Today

There is still too much news

October 6, 2020

On Friday evening, CNN put a breaking-news chyron on screen: “WH: THERE WILL NOT BE A TRANSFER OF POWER.” It reflected White House assurances that President Trump—who was, at that moment, waiting to be taken to hospital after testing positive for COVID-19—did not plan on ceding his duties to Vice President Mike Pence. Its wording, however, could also have applied to Trump’s repeated refusal to promise that he’ll leave office peacefully should he lose the election in November. The chyron’s dual meaning said a lot about the insanity of the news cycle right now, and both senses remain operative. Trump still hasn’t committed to a peaceful post-election transition. And he’s still trying to portray himself—dubiously—as being hard at work despite his COVID symptoms. Last night, he left the hospital to return to the White House, where he ripped off his mask for a photo op on the balcony. He was visibly short of breath.

In early July, I wrote that the first half of 2020 had given us too much news. Concurrent important stories, I wrote, all demanded “our attention, our empathy, our thoughtful analysis, and, often, our anger and sadness,” even though “such total, thorough engagement is impossible.” Since then, the news cycle has only continued to speed up. In July, I linked, by way of crude news measurement, to a recent finding from the data site FiveThirtyEight: the New York Times had already run thirty-three full-width banner headlines in 2020, already comfortably beating every other election year since 1968. Now, in the past nine days alone, the Times has run five full-width headlines: last Monday, to mark its bombshell reporting on Trump’s taxes (remember them?); last Thursday, on Trump’s push to destroy confidence in the election; on both Saturday and Sunday, following Trump’s hospitalization; and today, following his discharge. The same period has seen other huge stories—the ongoing fallout from the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the waning of coronavirus stimulus talks amid a massive economic crisis, revelations about the grand jury in the Breonna Taylor case, and so on—that didn’t get the full-width treatment, but are nonetheless of huge significance.

Related: Trump, reckless and behind the wheel

Many journalists have remarked on the unstoppable news tidal wave. Trump’s diagnosis only added to the “strain of a nation that never seems to have a minute to turn away from misery or controversy or both, never has a chance to collect its breath, never has a week or a day to fully enjoy life as it existed when the year began,” Dan Balz wrote in the Washington Post over the weekend. “Events—some of them once-in-decades or once-in-a-century occurrences—now play out all in unison. There is no respite. If one ebbs another flows.”

As I wrote in my previous piece, this ebb and flow isn’t exactly a result of chance: big stories don’t just happen to coincide, but rather coexist in “a messy ecosystem of cause, effect, suggestion, escalation, and acceleration.” By that logic, it’s no surprise that early October is proving even faster-paced than early July. Trump’s diagnosis is a good example. Who gets sick, when they get sick, and how sick they get might seem like pretty random variables—but there’s nothing random about Trump’s reckless mismanagement of the pandemic, nor his refusal to take common-sense personal precautions against it. (“Reality isn’t crumbling around us!” Charlie Warzel, of the Times, wrote Saturday; what we’re seeing is “the unflinching reality of science.”) Trump’s diagnosis reflects another aspect of the messy ecosystem, too: chronology can be skewed, hindering our ability to tell linear, contained stories. Trump’s discharge from hospital is an attempt to game chronology and convince us that he isn’t that sick anymore. But that isn’t how COVID symptoms always work: we know that they can come and go on a time delay.

The threat to the election is another example of a story that is chaotic but not random: it’s the culmination of a concerted disinformation campaign on the part of the president (a campaign that, as Yochai Benkler wrote for CJR last week, has been abetted by the mainstream press) that is itself a logical outgrowth of years of Republican voter-suppression efforts. The chronology here is clearer than with COVID: the election is fixed and we’re running out of time to protect it. In recent weeks, we’ve seen much excellent, urgent coverage on the immediacy of the threat, but that urgency has often not been incorporated into horserace punditry about the debates and the polls, much of which continues to treat this election as a normal news event; Trump’s diagnosis, meanwhile, has knocked the story down the news cycle. The horserace does still matter—if Trump loses, the margin of his defeat will be significant in determining his ability to steal the election—but it isn’t paramount here: Trump isn’t trying to win the election so much as crush it. That fact cannot be siloed or forgotten, even if it feels contrived to force it into other Trump stories, such as his illness.

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As The Nation’s Elie Mystal wrote last week, we still don’t seem prepared to handle what Trump might do in November. Not that we need to wait until next month to see how bad things are: Ten days ago, Indi Samarajiva, who lived through the end of a civil war in Sri Lanka, argued, in a piece for GEN, that America is already living through a period of collapse. Many Americans are “waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky,” but that’s not what collapse looks like, Samarajiva writes. It is, rather, “just a series of ordinary days in between extraordinary bullshit, most of it happening to someone else.”

However dire you think America’s present predicament is, there’s little doubt that the news cycle, as it currently exists, is ill-equipped to communicate the stakes. The blocky rhythms of TV news, radio bulletins, and newspaper front pages imply a neatness—a discreteness—to the news that is premised, if only implicitly, on our ability to move our attention around without democracy being destroyed while we’re looking at something else. “Nobody comes on TV and says ‘things are officially bad,’” Samarajiva wrote. “There’s no launch party for decay.” When we do confront that ever-present threat, it’s hard to find the language to adequately describe it. It presents itself as a contradiction: stating and restating it can feel boring and repetitive—as Quinta Jurecic wrote recently for The Atlantic, that’s true of all Trump stories, given how well we know his character by now—and yet, if the election is to be subverted, it’ll likely rely on subtle dynamics that we can’t know ahead of time. So far, the best journalism on the election threat has centered reporting—what we know about electoral architecture and Trump’s intentions—not speculation. But we still need to find a way of mainlining such reporting into every story we tell.

This dynamic, while of heightened importance at the moment, isn’t only true of stories about Trump and the election. The inadequacy of how we structure the news has always been a problem, cutting against the need to pay sustained attention to crises—poverty, racism, healthcare, guns, and so on—that aren’t best covered as a function of sporadic flare-ups, but rather as omnipresent threats. Climate change, of course, is one such crisis. Record wildfires in California and elsewhere keep burning with an intensity that belies their inconsistent placement in the news cycle. Terrible storms keep passing through America’s territory and national focus.

None of this is really random, either—climate change is, generally, making such disasters worse, and is our fault. Yesterday, outstanding reporting by Bloomberg Green’s Kevin Crowley and Akshat Rathi reminded us of the stakes: they obtained documents from inside Exxon Mobil showing that the company was planning, as of quite recently, to increase its annual CO2 emissions by as much as the entire output of Greece. I didn’t see it cut through on cable. Stories like these always prove the biggest victims of our scattershot attention span and the too-much-news phenomenon. Fixing that will require major structural changes to how we present information. But even briefly centering such stories—instead of Trump’s latest dangerous, meaningless photo op—would be a start. He’s not out of the woods. Nor are we.

Below, more on everything:

  • COVID in the White House: Yesterday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, confirmed that she has tested positive for COVID-19. Two of her deputies also tested positive. McEnany briefed reporters indoors last Thursday and briefed outdoors over the weekend, too; she was not wearing a mask on any of these occasions. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports that many journalists covering the White House are “furious” that McEnany and her colleagues have put them at risk. (A statement released yesterday by the White House Correspondents Association didn’t channel that fury but did wish McEnany well; on Twitter, New York’s Olivia Nuzzi called the statement “weak ass.”) At least two housekeeping staffers at the White House are also COVID-positive. According to Maggie Haberman, of the Times, they were discouraged from sharing their diagnosis.
  • A car crash: For CJR, Bill Grueskin argues that Trump is behaving like a drunk driver and that the press must cover him that way. “If we can see with our own eyes that the president is recklessly endangering the lives of others, we should not shrink from saying it,” one Washington correspondent told Grueskin. “Our assessments should meet the gravity of the moment, though it makes some of us uncomfortable to say it and some in our audience uncomfortable to take it in.”
  • The debates must go on?: The vice-presidential debate between Pence and Kamala Harris will go ahead in Salt Lake City as planned tomorrow, despite a litany of Pence’s colleagues having tested positive for COVID; Pence and Harris will stand farther apart than initially intended, and the Commission on Presidential Debates has authorized the erection of a plexiglass barrier between them. (This, of course, is no guarantee against viral transmission.) The second debate between Trump and Biden is currently scheduled for next Thursday, October 15. Biden still plans to participate, pending scientific advice.
  • The climate crisis: Yesterday, Katharine Viner, the editor in chief of The Guardian, doubled down on the paper’s commitment to aggressively cover the climate crisis, despite the flood of terrible news elsewhere. “Amid all the fear and sadness of 2020, it remains the overwhelming long-term threat to our planet and to everyone’s health and security,” Viner wrote. “That is why we promise to keep reporting on it, raising the alarm and investigating the crisis and possible solutions, until we begin to see genuine systemic change.” The Guardian is a partner on CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now initiative; you can read more about that here.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Norm Pearlstine told colleagues that he will step down as executive editor of the LA Times once a successor has been named. Pearlstine was appointed to the post in 2018, shortly after Patrick Soon-Shiong acquired the paper; since then, Pearlstine has overseen an expansion of the newsroom and union negotiations, but also a series of controversies, most notably over a lack of diversity among the paper’s staff. Pearlstine’s replacement will have to address that, as well as renew a push for digital subscribers.
  • The union representing staffers at the New Yorker won a major victory after managers at Condé Nast agreed to include a just-cause provision in the union’s contract, meaning that management will have to provide due process if they seek to fire an employee. (The contract has yet to be concluded.) Union members recently announced their intention to (virtually) picket the magazine’s annual festival, and Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez withdrew from speaking roles in solidarity. CNN’s Kerry Flynn has more.
  • This morning, Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman announced that they will stop writing Politico’s Playbook newsletter, an influential tipsheet among Beltway insiders, at the end of the year; they both plan to leave Politico altogether to pursue an unspecified “new challenge.” Palmer and Sherman helmed Playbook for four years; back in 2017, they discussed the newsletter’s evolution with CJR’s Pete Vernon on our podcast, The Kicker.
  • Last month, management at the Chicago Reporter, a nonprofit newsroom that covers race and poverty, reportedly fired Fernando Diaz, its editor and publisher, and placed its operations on “hiatus”; it last published a story on September 16. The Reporter doesn’t appear to be in financial trouble—a former editor remarked that “the funding remains solid”—but its future is unclear. Former staffers and contributors are seeking answers; Tom Schuba has more for the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Poynter’s Rick Edmonds assesses the fortunes of Meredith, the magazine publisher that looked to be in a strong position when it acquired Time Inc. in 2017, but has since seen revenues stall, its share price decline, and the COVID advertising crisis bite. Meredith recently laid off 180 staffers. “It’s not a good look for the magazine industry,” Edmonds writes, “when its brightest star is headed, even just for now, in the wrong direction.”
  • For CJR, the researchers Alice Marwick and William Partin make the case that, while adherents to the QAnon conspiracy may seem irrational and credulous, they actually value the process of “validating” their bogus claims. Critical-thinking practices are often seen as “a panacea for disinformation,” Marwick and Partin write, but many Q believers “already do these things, and defend the validity of the conspiracy on this basis.”
  • On Sunday, NPR reported that political appointees at the US Agency for Global Media investigated Steve Herman, Voice of America’s White House bureau chief, for supposed anti-Trump bias. VOA staffers told The Intercept’s Alex Emmons that the Herman probe was not an isolated incident—less high-profile colleagues have been investigated, too, “often resulting in reporters being told to provide more airtime for right-wing viewpoints.”
  • And finally, a soothing dose of “the US isn’t uniquely screwed” news from the UK, where health officials failed to report nearly sixteen-thousand recent positive COVID tests after the Excel spreadsheet that officials were using to keep track of them ran out of rows.

ICYMI: The White House wages war on transparency: Trump’s health edition

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.