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Who, and what, deserve our attention now?



If you ask me, boring government is the best kind of government, though, judging by the grin on his face, Biden is far from bored by rides on Marine 1. White House photo.


Scott Rosenberg has a very good article at Axios this morning: After Trump, the attention economy deflates. Rosenberg writes, “Donald Trump used social media to provoke and distract Americans around the clock, rewiring the country’s nervous system…. Now we’re going to learn whether our fried collective circuits can recover.”

The article, I think, is a must-read. According to Rosenberg, those who want our attention fall roughly into two camps: those who want to keep ranting at us, making us angry, trying to scare us, and exploiting us; and those who want to change the norm, “believing that a pandemic-exhausted public yearns for simpler, straighter talk at lower volume.”

In the first camp Rosenberg puts those who want to continue the Trumpian pig circus, such as Sen. Josh Hawley and huckster Elon Musk. The Biden administration is leading the second camp.

Speaking only for myself, I’d amend Rosenberg’s words a bit. I’m not pandemic exhausted. I’m Trump exhausted and Republican exhausted. I’m sure I’m not the only one who burned out from checking the news two dozen times a day out of fear that the world might fly apart at any moment. We knew that we were being exploited, we knew it was getting to our mental health, and we knew that the attention industry was taking it to the bank.

My morning routine, with coffee, was (and still is, for the moment) to make the rounds of a fairly long list of web sites to get a feel for what’s going on — the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, the New Republic, Axios, Politico, Salon, the Guardian, Vox, New York Magazine, the Irish Times, Herald Scotland, the Economist, and even Huffington Post. I get zero percent of my news from apps and social media, though Heather Cox Richardson’s daily dispatches on Facebook have been a must-read for many months. Also on Facebook I regularly check the work of a former colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, Debra Saunders, who is now a White House correspondent for the Las Vegas Review Journal. Debra’s work is a way of checking the thinking of those who are still Republicans but who have preserved some ability to reason. Many of the comments, though, were from Trumpian zombies. It took Debra a long time to abandon Trump and to stop writing confirmation bias for Trumpers, but she seems to have finally done it, and she’s taking heat for it from those who remain addicted to the Trump pig circus. “Biden might also put Sominex out of business,” wrote one commenter, as though that’s a criticism rather than a compliment. I’m guessing that Debra finds herself in a rough spot right now — going with principle and reason at the risk of losing readers who aren’t getting their red meat anymore.

Twitter has proven itself to be a big part of the problem. The idea that anything useful in public affairs can be said in 140 (or 280) characters was a dangerous idea from the start. Trump proved how easily Twitter can be exploited as an instrument of low-information, highly inflammatory propaganda. A better world would abandon Twitter. If President Biden uses Twitter, I’m not aware of it.

Another thing that needs to be abandoned is the idea that apps are designed to exploit, the idea of “news feeds,” as though news is something to be chosen for us and then fed to us after we’ve been captured in an app. I never fell for that. I feed myself, which is why I use a web browser, bookmarks, and links and spend very little time in apps. Axios has written about this, too: Publishers see new life in the old open web. But some of us, refusing to be captured, never left “the old open web.”

It’s clear that even news sites that merit trust are struggling for material post-Trump. I’m seeing a lot more of the kind of material that is typical of Huffington Post — television, new chicken sandwiches, royalty news, celebrity news, and the latest trends in relationships.

Rosenberg writes in the Axios piece: “Team Biden isn’t the only force trying to downshift the public conversation…. The new wave of subscription-based newsletter and podcast enterprises aims to put media creation on a less fickle footing, funded by longer-term commitments from readers rather than volume-driven ad revenue.”

The key word there is “subscription.” As I rethink my media diet, I’m not willing to pay just anyone for news, but I’m willing to continue to pay the New York Times and the Washington Post. And I’ll probably continue to check some clickbait sites such as Huffington Post, for the same reason that I sometimes watch the ABC evening news — because I want to see what people are consuming and what kind of information low-information types are working with. (I draw the line at watching Fox News, just because brazen propaganda and Republican red meat are so damaging to one’s health, no matter where one is on the political spectrum.)

But, as choosy and news-savvy as I am as an old newspaperman, I realize that I’m not in control. What matters most is what happens next in what Rosenberg calls the attention economy. Surely we can assume that a media divide will continue to exploit the political divide. We high-information types will continue to have good sources of news and commentary, especially if we’re willing to pay for it. For the news to be more boring would be thrilling, in a paradoxical sort of way. As for those who love a pig circus, we can hope that hard times are on the way, since it seems very unlikely that a Josh Hawley, or an Elon Musk, or a Marjorie Taylor Green, will ever be able to out-pig the greatest pig in American history, Donald Trump.

If I had my way, the news hereafter would be much more boring, and all those movies and series available for streaming would be less so.

9 Comments

  1. Chenda wrote:

    David, may I ask you as a former newspaper man what do you think can or should be done to improve the media and deal with the likes of Fox news ? Tighter government regulation, or is it best countered with building up alternative platforms ? As an aside, I really hope Murdoch is held to account for his role in the rise of Trumpism, and a great many other things.

    I have to periodically take news fasts for my mental health as there is so much triggering content, especially if I break my own rule about never reading the comments

    Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Chenda: It’s a very tough question, isn’t it? I believe in the American First Amendment (you’re in the U.K., I know), but even if I didn’t, it’s the law of the land. There has been some talk about a new version of the Fairness Doctrine, which passed constitutional muster but was rescinded in 1987 under Ronald Reagan. I’m pretty sure that I would favor a revised and updated version of the Fairness Doctrine. It’s shocking that there is such a huge demand for being lied to, and that lying to and enraging Americans is even highly profitable. The roots of the disease are deep, so I’m afraid there is no easy answer. Actually educating our young people while waiting for old degenerates to die off might be the only solution.

    Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  3. Chenda wrote:

    Thanks David, yes not easy but I agree some level of regulatory accountability would be desirable.

    Thursday, February 18, 2021 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    Speaking of old degenerates, we’re now rid of Rush Limbaugh, who did as much damage to this country as anybody who ever lived. He was worth $600 million. It’s amazing how much money there is in the rage, ignorance, and conspiracy theory economy. Churches get a lot of that money, too, tax free.

    Thursday, February 18, 2021 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  5. Chenda wrote:

    Yes someone recently sent me a John Oliver sketch about how some ‘churches’ shamelessly exploit their members for cash so the founders can fly around in private jets and live in mansions, all tax exempt.

    Thursday, February 18, 2021 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  6. Tom wrote:

    Quality information, where there is a byline attached to what you are reading comes at a cost and with so much free stuff floating around hoping for a more informed electorate is a lost cause, or so I think. Few of us are critical readers any more.

    I have high hopes for the Biden administration, once again seeing adults trying to work for all of us, but I’ve seen over the course of my lifetime how we’ve short changed those who come behind us. In 1958 I attended a public state college where tuition and books (rented) cost $99 per year. I finished my education at a private college where I paid about $500 per semester. When I graduated, within one year I had bought our first house and a new car. My wife quit her job and stayed home raising our kids. We built up savings, bought a second car and a camper for family vacations and weekends. That was the norm, nothing exceptional at all about my career. It seems that we drift further and further away from what was unexceptional one generation ago. Am I off topic? So much smoke and mirrors that distract. I want to be optimistic, but I’m afraid I’m fooling myself.

    Friday, February 19, 2021 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  7. Dan wrote:

    I realized this about ten years ago when social media really boomed. I was finishing up my undergrad in economics and needed to be current with economic conditions. That sort of information is hard to find on major news outlets. I still stick to what I used then – CNBC, the WSJ (sometimes), and Reuters.

    In 2017, I bought some Facebook stock anticipating it to do something like YouTube is doing with streaming news, but it never did. Instead, it kept filling the trough with slop for the masses. Twitter, which used to seem somewhat more professional as far as keeping big storylines to a headline or caption with a link to a website for the real story, also regressed informatively. I used to follow plenty of lesser known journalists who upped their stature using Twitter, but I no longer have an account on there as I find it tedious.

    I noticed almost immediately after the inauguration that Trump was no longer dominating news as there were very few links to stories on him on any of the sites I frequent.

    Wednesday, February 24, 2021 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  8. Karren wrote:

    Hi, I just realized how long it’s been since we heard from you. I hope you are ok. I miss your wonderfully informative postings.
    You ok?

    Friday, February 26, 2021 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  9. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Karren: How nice of you to inquire! Partly it’s the spring weather. I’ve been outdoors getting a lot of work done in the yard, garden, and orchard. But now that the rain has returned I’m working on reading the page proofs of a new book by Jonathan Rauch, which will be published in May by the Brookings Institution Press. It’s an excellent book, and I’ll have a review here closer to its publication date. I’ll be back!

    Friday, February 26, 2021 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

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