It used to be that news was more or less the reporting of interactions that were geopolitical in scale. These days, news stories break at the speed of a president’s pudgy little bigot-fingers. Newspapers are complicit in acquiescing to the chaos of Trump’s presidency by keeping us at tweet’s length from a deeper understanding of this new, terrifying White House. One could almost argue that it’s never been more important for newspapers to avoid reporting the news, and instead tell us what’s actually going on.
Before reading this, you’ve probably already read three terrifying things that have happened this week. Donald Trump may have made being a woman with a job illegal via twitter while still wearing a sleeping mask; anti-SSM posters will have popped up around Australia; Martin Shkreli will have continued being an ill-fitting suit sewn onto a sneering penis.
Of course, that’s just the first wave. Once those initial stories have sunk in, then will come the twitter storm in reaction, followed by 47 responding think-pieces per story, many of them just a curation of the tweets that preceded them. There’ll be jokes, entire memes will evolve and become extinct within 24 hours, and by the evening the ultimate takedowns of Trump and Shkreli will have been decided, wrapped up, and we’ll head to bed waiting for it to all start again in the morning.
Often this cycle plays out in hours, rather than over a day, as the internet swerves from one controversial tweet-fart to the next, constantly keen to stay on top of the latest breaking news. The trouble is, when news stories can break at the speed of a president’s pudgy little bigot-fingers, this can leave entire swathes of the media and online communities in a heightened state of constant, anxiety-riddled catch-up.
Just 15 years ago, I’d probably read a newspaper just once every other day. What a weirdo.
As with all technological advances, I find myself questioning this, our gradual descent into compulsively hate-watching the entirety of existence around the clock. It’s odd, but I get the feeling that if I didn’t look at a news website or check in to twitter’s “moments” for five days, I’d suddenly fear I was no longer up to date. And yet you could easily stay “informed” years ago by consuming one twentieth the news content. So are we more up to date now, or has the expiry date on information merely been shortened so much by technology that we now have to make sure we’re up to date in increasingly shorter time spans? It’s not that we know more now, it’s that we have to know increasingly smaller amounts of information, more often.
It’s not just that the news has become more piecemeal in its vision. As timeframes become smaller in focus, the range of sources become broader, less relevant.
It used to be that news was more or less the reporting of interactions that were geopolitical in scale. Nowadays, an insensitive comment from a celebrity or public figure (usually on twitter, as that’s where everything, even heartfelt condolences, is supposed to be expressed now) can spawn a huge online backlash which then, naturally, must get reported on.
Media outlets themselves are inevitably tempted to throw in their own op-eds, or “hot takes” (Jesus sodding Christ, if I hear that term one more time…) in the hope of capitalising on the stampede of digital outrage.
You could be forgiven for thinking that more things are happening than they used to, but it’s more that our attention span and the news have both developed an insanely high turnover while opening up to a positive glut of potential sources: it’s not just Sean Spicer who gets reported on, but #SeanSpicerFacts. Our reaction to the news becomes news in of itself.
What’s worrying is that there’s no open self-examination from news outlets as to whether any of this is helpful or even fitting of their remit, but there should be. Like anything, news depreciates in value the more of it there is. Trump’s ban on trans people serving in the military would have constituted weeks’ worth of in depth articles back in “the day”, but already I feel like we’ve moved on: the sushi train of gaffe dishes zipping past on their little conveyor belt at ever-increasing speeds, accompanied by recaps of the Bachelor. Of further concern is the sense I get that we’re not just more distracted rather than informed, but that this plays into the hands of those like Trump, and also makes our rage have that same, shorter, corresponding expiry date. How many times have the twitter masses reared their head to guffaw at the next person to be fired from Trump’s team, or rail against his daily changing commentary regarding Charlottesville? These are micro outbursts that last days, though more often only hours.
How much better would this intellectual energy be if focused solely on one, more systemic issue? As much as Trump’s words enable white nationalists, in some small way we’re enabling them too by focusing on nothing that resembles a remedy to the situation. Again, we’re “hate-watching” the news rather than learning from it and discussing practical solutions. Rage against the machine has given way to outrage about everything. Some of that outrage is valid, but none of it is channeled, merely dispersed.
News outlets that pride themselves on their combat against climate change fail to match this with an aspirational charter that would see them keeping us informed rather than distracted. They should realise that news can be systemic, and that just because our forms of expression have been sped up to the second, our interpretation of them needn’t be as flitting. History books, for example, still maintain their sense of broader perspective: different editions aren’t being written to cover individual minutes of 2017.
Newspapers should also realise that they’re complicit in assuring our acquiescence to the chaos of Trump’s presidency by keeping us at tweet’s length from a deeper understanding of this new, terrifying White House.
One could almost argue that it’s never been more important for newspapers to avoid reporting the news, and instead tell us what’s actually going on.
In my new home of Australia, the same problem is clear. Pauline Hanson, of One Nation, recently arrived in the senate chambers wearing a burqa. It’s hardly surprising; her entire political career has been a string of ceaseless gaffes. But the same ineptitude that made her a laughing stock in the 90s has somehow served as a strength in a newer, more easily-distracted age. Criticising her only allows her the chance to point out how the lefty elites attacking her are out of touch; a post-truth sleight of hand that only emboldens her followers further. Something that ought to be terrifying to the media and satirists such as myself.
Each new carelessly (or calculated?) offensive remark or stunt sees her gain rolling coverage from outlets keen to pile on and to gain approval through clicks, just as progressives do as individuals. But this is disproportionate to her actual influence, and so unfair to the other 70-plus senators who’re robbed of the media spotlight (essentially free advertising) for being utterly mundane.
Besides the hitherto hypothesised impacts on how our misdirected attention might be playing into the hands of the right wing spectacle currently unfolding worldwide, there’s also just the more basic concerns for our mental health. What studies have been done into how our new consumption of media might be affecting our attention span, moods, and overall well-being?
Until we know more, I would recommend radically altering our consumption habits, qualitatively and quantitatively. Catch up on your news in one go on a Friday or over the weekend. Also, seek out news that is about more than just what outrageous things politicians said today. In Australia, if Pauline Hanson truly offends you, why not look beyond her performative appearances and read up on what systemic issues might have led to her gaining power in the first place, and how to best appeal to those voters? Comedians should consider doing the same.
Progressive news publications that profess to care about the environment and other broad societal issues would do well to shift their focus away from the minute-by-minute, readily digested and tackled by twitter in any case, and instead redirect their coverage to subjects that would leave readers better informed rather than overstimulated.
Jazz arrived in Sydney in 2011 and quickly established himself as the most successful unheard of comedian you’ve never met. After 6 months in Australia he was writing and performing on A Rational Fear (FBI Radio, Radio National), and subsequently landed a job working on ABC2’s “The Roast”. He’s performed at six comedy festivals, written for TEDx and I Fucking Love Science Live, and now has his own TV column in The Guardian where he insults terrible things for money (You can read the articles here).
More recently, Jazz’ stand-up was listed in The Guardian as some of the best in Climate Science Comedy, where he was listed along side the likes of John Oliver, Ali G, David Mitchell, and The Onion.
With each subsequent good review, his audiences have gradually dwindled, meaning that if the next show goes well Jazz may be able to give up comedy altogether.
Jazz is politically disgruntled, highly caffeinated, a huge fan of William Blake, a logical fanatic, and a fan of sensory deprivation tanks and Xbox RPGs. He also podcasts weekly, dissecting current affairs and observational topics in the equivalent of an aural frown. His podcast was listed by iTunes in their New and Noteworthy section after 3 episodes.