Donald J. Trump is the Sigmund Freud of U.S. politics. Whether you like it or not, he can and will show up in any conversation, any debate, any think piece about the government, especially when it shouldn’t have anything to do with him. He’s like the flu, or your boss’s Ivy League son; no, he’s not relevant right now, but you better stay on your toes or he’s damn well gonna be.
His role as the bogeyman of national policy is, of course, in no small part thanks to the media. Trump and the media were a codependent relationship back in his campaigns and presidency, a feedback loop of absurd tweets, hate clicks, advertising revenue and primetime spotlights that made his miasmic presence fill every corner of the country. American politics was, in most cases, boring. Trump was very, very entertaining.
What Trump wasn’t, however, was a politician. One could convincingly claim, for example, that the media feeding his appetite for attention caused damage to our political system by prioritizing sensational headlines to get clicks rather than attempting to focus on the more moderate, if boring, politicians in the race. This is a totally rational conclusion that I absolutely, one hundred percent disagree with.
Sensationalist media outlets have existed for as long as the concept of news has. Before we had clickbait we had guys on street corners hawking the headlines to passersby. We as a species have had terrible gossip throughout every era of history. Twitter users getting Adam Levine to the top of the trending list because he cheated on his wife isn’t a disregard for political awareness—it’s human nature.
The only thing that changed with the advent of the digital age is the sheer speed at which information travels. Back in the day, you had to wait for the morning paper to hear about the crazy s**t Nixon said that week. Today every major news development has a shorter lifespan, not because we as a society care less, but because we can hear about another equally important thing faster than ever before. It’s hard for a story to stay relevant when every major world event is being beamed to our pockets from space.
This is a good thing. The rate at which we hear about current events is extraordinarily, exhaustingly fast. All the different platforms and organizations fighting desperately for every shred of your attention span and the variety of topics one can hear about in a day are staggering — but this means that a lot more gets noticed. Take, for example, the recent home invasion and ensuing attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi in their California home. This was an attack on the spouse of a representative, across the country, during the middle of an election cycle for Pennsylvania’s Senator and Governor positions while the Phillies were playing in the World Series and Elon Musk ascended to CEO of Twitter.
It was a damning indicator of division in this country that happened during an unusually active news cycle. But you heard about it anyway.
We can’t expect the media to slow down, and they by all rights shouldn’t attempt to. John Fetterman’s shaky performance in his Oct. 25 debate against Dr. Mehmet Oz was widely discussed in the context of his recent stroke and is now, a week and a half later, so old as to be almost completely useless as a news story. The public has moved on.
The reality is that for a news story to be successful, it has to catch your attention instantly and make you drop everything to read it. No room for error. No second chances. Clickbait, while prioritizing less-than-significant headlines in favor of whatever gets you in the door, has the fundamentally important role of getting you in the door. There’s a reason why Buzzfeed, a particularly notorious manufacturer of these kinds of articles, shares a name with Buzzfeed News, the three-time finalist and one-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for International Journalism. Before Buzzfeed News moved to its own website seven years after launching, it was a division of Buzzfeed.com and would have directly benefited from the traffic generated by those clickbait articles. Without sensationalist headlines, and the advertising revenue generated by it, I believe Buzzfeed News would not exist as it does today.
In recent years the political landscape of the country has seen a dramatic shift towards amateur politicians having a real shot at major public office positions. Is this because of independent news outlets giving them attention, or is it a sign of general discontent with the establishment as a whole? Someone with absolutely no prior experience winning the presidency—it’s ridiculous, it’s dangerous and it’s a damn good story. You would have heard about it anyway.