What good is "the news"?
“I had been paying attention to the news for decades... and I never did anything with it.”
Welcome back to Life Inside the Bubble, a newsletter about class, wealth, and privilege. If you haven’t already, please subscribe below.
In season two of The White Lotus, HBO’s dramedy about rich people being miserable at an Italian luxury resort, Will Sharpe and Aubrey Plaza play a couple who probably have a lot in common with your average prestige TV viewer. Left-wing, undersexed, uncomfortable in their own skins, moralistic, performatively concerned with the state of the world, unsure whether they want to have kids, clearly well-off but also quick to describe themselves as not materialistic. If they’d been born a generation earlier they’d be called yuppies. In the first episode, they’re having poolside spritzes with the couple who invited them to the resort, who turn out to be their polar opposites: they’re all sunshine and smiles, uniformed and happy; they tell their traveling companions that they can’t remember whether they voted. Oh, and they’ve stopped reading the news. Plaza and Sharpe stare in shock. They don’t pay attention to the news! This, to our dour millennial protagonists, is a nearly unforgivable sin.
Their reaction reminded me of the outrage that a lot of people felt when they read a 2018 New York Times profile of Erik Hagerman, a former corporate executive living in semi-rural Ohio. Hagerman, like a lot of liberals, was appalled by the election of Donald Trump, so appalled that he decided that he wouldn’t read or watch the news anymore. He wouldn’t go on social media either, or let his friends and family discuss anything about current events in front of him. He wore headphones blaring white noise when he went to coffee shops in order to avoid hearing snippets of conversations, he watched Cleveland Cavaliers games on mute, he read The New Yorker but only the art reviews.
At the time of its publication, the story about Hagerman went semi-viral on Twitter, mostly because it made a lot of people very upset. Here was this wealthy white man who had decided to run away right as everyone else was working to make things better and defeat Trump and his GOP cronies. It’s probably for the best that Hagerman didn’t have Twitter, because the prevailing sentiment was that his retreat from the world was cowardly. A journalism professor described Hagerman as “happily avoiding engaging in the responsibilities of citizenship.”
If this seems harsh, it’s worth remembering that in the early Trump era especially, Republican attacks on the media seemed to be part of the GOP’s new fascistic bent. Respecting and defending the media became a bedrock liberal value, and deciding not to keep up on current events was widely seen as equivalent to not caring about the country.
But in Hagerman’s defense, he wasn’t just sitting around playing Call of Duty all day. He was working to restore some land around a former coal mine that he planned to donate to the public good, a project that is using up most of his net worth. And some of what he told the Times made obvious sense. “I had been paying attention to the news for decades,” he said. “And I never did anything with it.”
People who do pay attention to the news are sometimes called news consumers, and that term seems apt: a consumer is passive, the end user of a product. And while some of what journalists traditionally produce is helpful to a news consumer’s daily life (traffic and weather reports), a lot of what gets described as news is clearly entertainment. That is, it may be enlightening, it may make the audience consider the world in a new light, it may be a pleasure to consume, but it’s something you watch or read in your leisure time, not a requirement of being part of society.
Some journalists get touchy if you describe them as being in the entertainment business. And they largely don’t conduct themselves as entertainers–they want to uncover important truths that the public needs to know, they want to break stories and ferret out scoops, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and so on. Sometimes, journalists bring about real change when they discover scandals and corruption that public officials, civic organizations, and voters can work to address. You don’t go into journalism for the fame or the money, believe me. You do the work because something burns inside you and you want to make a difference. Sometimes, you do make a difference. Clearly there is an element of public service to journalism–there should be an independent and objective account of what is happening in the world, and there’s a reason authoritarian governments crack down on the media. Truth can be a powerful thing.
But admittedly, not every piece of content the media produces is vital or even helpful to a news consumer’s life. Some stories are produced to take advantage of SEO or social trends; others are written because an outlet feels the need to have an angle on the cycle’s hot topic. A great deal of political news, especially the variety that ends up on cable TV, focuses on big-picture takes about who’s winning and losing.
This sort of journalism has been on display the last couple of weeks, as the media-industrial complex turned its focus to the midterm elections. Election Day content, in particular, is borderline useless. Once polling stations close and votes are being counted, an election is over. If you turned off CNN on Election Day, logged on to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 until bedtime, then woke up the next day to check the results, you would be no worse informed about the outcomes than someone who had been obsessively scrolling Twitter all night as ballots were being tallied up. And arguably, a political junkie who was plugged into the cable news/Twitter narratives in the run-up to the midterms was less informed than a headset-wearing CoD fanboy, since those narratives turned out to be mostly wrong.
So much of what gets the most play in the media has little to no practical value to news consumers. Would inhaling wall-to-wall midterm coverage help you in any way? Did the widespread obsession with Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump make the world a better place? Does the wall-to-wall coverage of certain celebrity trials improve lives? Are the constant push notifications I get about Musk’s Twitter takeover being sent to me because these media outlets think I really need to know about these stories for my well-being?
I don’t want to blame media companies for any of this, who are in the business of giving their audiences what they want–even if what they want is to be kept in a constant state of low-grade panic about the world. But even if people enjoy, on some level, being agitated about something like Trump returning to Twitter, it doesn’t mean that their agitation is some kind of moral or civic duty. Maybe being upset about current events because you watch MSNBC leads you to become an activist or a donor or a political candidate and engage more deeply with the world around you, but not everyone watching MSNBC experiences it as a call to action. Sometimes, being upset by the news just leads you to consume more news.
Journalists shouldn’t try to nurture this kind of dopamine-fueled doomscrolling. We should write stories that interest readers but also expand their worldviews, force them to face uncomfortable truths, and maybe do something to improve the world. (And yes, we should also entertain them.) But news consumers can also be more deliberate about the kind of news they’re stuffing into their faces. If you realize that you’re developing unhealthy fixations because of the media, or that scrolling through the apps is making you anxious, please, engage with the world a little bit less! It will still be there, chugging along, without your constant nervous attention.
The prevailing sentiment was that Republicans were going to win big in places like Nevada and Arizona, and instead they lost, pretty embarrassingly in some cases.