At Real Life, Nathan Jurgenson reflects on the increase in the pace of the news cycle since the election of Donald Trump, whose first year in office has seemingly involved more dramatic “breaking news” than the entire terms of other presidents. Jurgenson argues that this shift, however exhausting, at least clarifies the real aim of news media today: not so much to “inform” as to provoke concern and anxiety, then to sooth that anxiety, then to start the anxiety cycle all over again. Read an excerpt from Jurgenson’s piece below, of the full text here.
If you consumed and enjoyed most mainstream political coverage during the campaign, you likely woke up the day after the election confused by the reality of the world. All the while, however, that factiness-oriented coverage was likely soothing. And after the election it probably became more so, its palliative effects stronger than ever. After hardly missing a beat, people tuned right back in to what was misleading in the first place.
This is clearest indicator that the role of the news is not to be informative but to use information as a means to comfort. If political coverage produces anxiety, it also sells a kind of relief, the antidote to its own poison. As Trump began to dominate every news cycle, you could at the same time find an increasing amount of data-science statistical models, insider punditry, and “wonk” podcasts. There, you could take in a stream of numbers and facts and hyper-informed opinions that stood in for a desired “normal” reality that didn’t exist outside those media objects. Instead of plainly and accurately describing our political reality as a violent and dishonest system that has little bearing to any objective truth outside of consolidating wealth and power, we can instead be “engaged” by the comforting narrative that the “good” politicians are in good faith, norms are productive and hold sway, and Trump was merely funny and, now, always about to be impeached.
The logic of consuming more news — getting more information and facts, more numbers, more precise probabilities — is a matter of entertainment, a chance to vicariously feel in the know and to align one’s identity with that feeling. The political “wonks” and “nerds” during the campaign could make you feel super-informed but that feeling is distinct from being informed. The taste for more news becomes its own end.
Image: Still from a video tweeted by President Trump which shows himself physically attacking a figure with CNN’s logo edited over their face. Via Talking Points Memo.