The last few months have been particularly unhappy ones for me. Not because there was anything wrong in my life; on the contrary, in my life things were going surprisingly well. The source of my misery? I was caught up in the news cycle.
I told myself it was partly my job. But the reality is, I was doing less of my job. How could it have been otherwise? I’d become consumed by a divisive, contentious, scandal driven news loop. Twitter. Google News. Apple News. Facebook. Longreads and hot takes via Instapaper. CNN. Email conversations. NPR.
My media diet had gone from abstemious to addicted. As someone who is normally self-disciplined, I felt guilty about the time I was wasting and the energy I spent emoting about things far beyond me, and yet, I could not control it. I know I am not the only one—the most common thing I’ve heard from people the last few months is: I can’t wait for this election to be over so I can go back to work. I’d venture to guess that there is someone else, who deep down, can at least relate to that sentiment: Fellow (and admitted) news junkie and, now President-elect, Donald Trump.
It’s time we all came to terms with our compulsion: How is anyone going to make America or themselves great again—if we’re all glued to our devices and television screens? How can anyone maintain their sanity when everything you read, see, and hear is designed to make you stop whatever you’re doing and consume because the world is supposedly ending?
In the 1990s, political scientists coined something called the CNN Effect. The basic premise was that a world of 24-hour media coverage would have considerable impact on foreign and domestic policy. When world leaders, generals and politicians watch their actions—and the actions of their counterparts—dissected, analyzed and speculated about in real time, the argument goes, it changes what they do and how they do it…much for the worse.
When they came up with this theory, CNN was mostly a niche channel. The idea that it would soon be only a part of a vast attention-sucking ecosystem that went far beyond broadcasting 24 hours a day was inconceivable. Today, the news machine is not only dozens of cable channels, but millions of blogs, hundreds of millions of social media accounts—all of which operate in real time, creating billions of bits of content a second. On the other end of that is another phenomenon called the narcotizing dysfunction which attempts to explain why highly informed citizens are often surprisingly inactive politically. The answer is that they confuse reading, thinking and chatting about issues (i.e “consuming”) with doing anything about them.
Both of these trends are exacerbated by the precipitous declines in advertising rates and subscriptions which have created a system that needs more and more eyeballs for longer periods of time while gutting high-quality, reliable sources of information. We have more ‘news’ but less original reporting than ever before, an order of magnitude more in the way of opinion and analysis, but as Tom Nichols has pointed out, somehow less expertise.
Chuck Klosterman once remarked at how strange it was to walk through the front offices of a football team and find that everyone there was watching ESPN. Didn’t they have better information that the average viewer or reporter? Turns out, no—they’re addicted to the same media we are and subject to the same groupthink. No longer is the CNN Effect limited to politics. The shrill voice of the media machine dominates every sphere and industry from sports to finance to Hollywood to the Oval Office. It might strike you as strange that someone like Donald Trump watches lots of CNN—and cares what the talking heads are saying about him—but to me, this is a result of the fact that he’s been a player in many industries for a long time. It’s a larger version of the same problem we’re all dealing with.
At the core of it, viewers think that staying informed and ‘reacting’ to the news is a form of participation (helping their favorite causes, teams or stocks) and elites have taken it for granted that media narratives are a window into the people’s will. But is it? When news sites deliberately create and cultivate outrage to get clicks, is what people are pissed off about online really an indicator of anything? Do you really care about half the things you share on social media—or do you ‘care’ about it as much as you care about the twists and turns of the latest Netflix series? Leaders might also claim that they need to be ‘informed’ too—and yet in an increasingly partisan or filtered world, their choices of media simply tell everyone what they want to hear (It’s interesting to think Obama, Romney, Trump and Clinton all went into their final election nights confident that the polls showed they each would win). Propaganda was originally about manipulating the people. Today, sites like Breitbart or Alternet (and their peers in other niches) create propaganda designed to resonate in the halls of power—designed to fool the Overton Window and direct decisions.
For our part, we’ve internalized this idea that what we chatter about, share, react to and comment on makes an impact. Yet has it? I would argue that we’ve begun to experience a sort of scandal immunity. We’re aghast at what is exposed to us…yet no real changes result from it. No one is listening to you—they’re laughing at you. They’re glad you’re distracted. They’re happy you’re posting on social media, because it means you’re not showing up at city council meetings, because it means you’re not voting.
It’s time that both sides face up to the incredible manipulation that’s happening to both parties (by that I mean people, not political parties). Twitter isn’t designed to help you get in and get out with the best information as quickly as possible—it’s supposed to suck you into either a contentious world of argument and debate or an echo-chamber that reassures you everyone thinks like you do. Facebook is supposedly one of the largest news sources in the world, and days after the election, it disavowed that the news it shared could have possibly impacted users behavior in a significant way. With manipulative tactics that range from exploiting the so-called ‘attention gap’ to giving voice to propagandistic campaign surrogates to addictive UX features to editors warping coverage around their own ‘narrative,’ we’re all drowning in a sea of unreality.
Who could possibly handle the incredibly tough job of governing or leading on such tainted information? How can citizens be expected to participate more actively in politics—as familiar as they are with the endless amounts of negativity, scandal and disdain that participants are exposed to? How can citizens be expected to contribute more actively to democracy when they already believe they’re spending hours a day constructively participating in the exchange of ideas?
We’re ‘participating’ in this ecosystem because it’s addicting and because we’re curious. Leaders hunger to know what we want and think—and so we go around and around in a loop. But the result is that reality is a refraction of a refraction of a refraction. It has taken your real concerns and channeled them into impotent rage on one end and created shamelessness and indecency on the other. If we could break out of it, not only could we get some work done, but we might be able to productively connect with each other.
In George S. Trow’s classic critique of newspapers from 1950-1998, he made an interesting observation. “Notice,” he said, “that the news is written in such a way that all these ‘dramatic’ ravelings and unravelings are reported in detail (because they have human interest) but should the thing finally come together, the news will just stop. Just when you want to know what’s going to happen (the president has won the election; what’s he going to do?) the news stops.”
Except not now. Not anymore. This is a new media age. There are too many players, the mindshare of the country that it absorbed was too great, for things to simply go back to normal.
No, it must be dragged out. Prolonged.
Unless we intervene.
I marked the day after the election by doing the following: I deleted Twitter from my phone. I deleted Facebook from my phone. I deleted the Google News app from my phone. I figured out how to remove Apple News from Siri. I removed CNN from my nightly scan of the television channels.
It’s not that I am going underground or completely disconnecting from current events. It’s that I’ve decided I am no longer going to watch them develop in real time. I’m going to watch the Saints play each Sunday, I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that tuning into Sports Center on Tuesday will help. I see it not as an act of resignation, but of empowerment. I reject the idea that the pot is nearly at a boil and I must watch it closely until the exact moment that it happens. I say it’s time we remember the adage that a watched pot never boils. Our attention hasn’t made a difference—if anything, it created our situation. For that reason, I will not longer be following the news.
“If you wish to improve,” Epictetus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” One of the most powerful things we can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or, more provocatively: “I don’t care.” Not about everything of course—just most things. Because most things don’t matter, and most news stories aren’t worth tracking.
It’s a trade off of deliberate ignorance for the ability to prioritize and see with clarity. It’s a swap of generalized outrage for what will hopefully be effective opposition to trends that actually matter (bad policy versus political correctness). Whatever one thinks of a potential Trump administration—that it’s the beginning of real positive change or that it’s the beginning of the end—I would argue that you would think about it all more objectively if you followed the breathless news cycle about it less.
Meanwhile, for the next four years, Trump is charged with leading this country. Not campaigning to be president, being president. That’s going to require ignoring the talking heads—the ones that hate him and the ones that love him—and doing one of the toughest jobs on the planet. And the same is true at a lesser level for every politician, CEO, and leader of any kind. Twitter will only be a source of aggravation and distraction for them and for us. Catering to the people who sell our attention for money will only deprive us of any potential common ground, it will actually make us less accountable to each other.
[For “Trump Administration,” you can insert just about anything you care about.]
There is plenty to do in this world, and plenty to be vigilant about. But let’s stop pretending that the ticker-tape of the news feed is anything other than what it is: addiction and manipulation masquerading as a social good. Then we wonder why we’re sapped of reason and willpower and perspective.
So let’s mark the end of 2016 by resetting.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and you can subscribe to his posts via email. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Also by Ryan Holiday:
Exclusive Interview: How This Right-Wing ‘Troll’ Reaches 100M People a Month
The Real Reason We Need to Stop Trying to Protect Everyone’s Feelings
Peter Thiel’s Reminder to the Gawker Generation: Actions Have Consequences
The Cause of This Nightmare Election? Media Greed and Shameless Traffic Worship
This Is the Hollowed-Out World That Outrage Culture Has Created