Depending on your partisan affiliation, the phenomenon of misleading or entirely falsified news articles online is either a menace or a scapegoat upon which Hillary Clinton’s loss can be blamed. Weaponized misinformation, particularly the sort with foreign fingerprints on it, is nothing to joke about. Yet the “fake news” issue has been elevated beyond its due proportion. Of equal if not more relevance is the plague of real news that has no greater value than the emotional satisfaction it provides the reader/viewer/listener. For evidence of this curse, look no further than Monday: Day four of saturation coverage of Hamilton-gate.
On Friday evening, Vice President-elect Mike Pence took in a performance of the popular Broadway musical Hamilton and all hell broke loose. Pence drew boos from a graceless audience, and the cast decided to break the fourth wall to deliver a post-show lecture on the virtues of inclusivity to the future vice president. Donald Trump took personal offense to the episode and expressed his distaste on Twitter. With that, the stage was set. The provocative takes on television, radio, and in print are still flowing. But why would this event have made such a seemingly outsize impact on the public discourse, given its relative nonimportance as one element in the larger story of the presidential transition? News consumers found the story satisfying, in part, because of its frivolity.
Media is a product. Firms that provide this product are servicing a need, and we’d only be kidding ourselves to claim news consumers desire only to be informed. This isn’t a matter of simple bias confirmation. News outlets have begun to cater not just to partisans but the minimally informed for whom fleeting and shareable controversies provide a sense of feeling informed. What media consumers reward outlets for are rarely deeply reported stories on matters related to consequential items of public policy. What takes off are emotionally stimulating stories that don’t require of their readers any background knowledge to fully understand them and to opine on them.
This kind of entry-level politics is not a new phenomenon, and its victims are bipartisan. Colin Kaepernick, the Black Lives Matter movement, college-age adults devolving into their childlike selves, or pretentious celebrities politicizing otherwise apolitical events; for the right, these and other similar stories masquerade as and suffice for intellectual stimulation and political engagement. The left is similarly plagued by mock controversies. The faces printed on American currency notes, minority representation in film adaptations of comic books, and astrophysicists insensitive enough to announce feats of human engineering while wearing shirts with cartoon depictions of scantily clad women on them. This isn’t politics but, for many, it’s close enough.
These are emotionally gratifying confirmations of tribal moiety. They provide readers a chance to affirm and demonstrate clannish loyalty. They are attractive to media organizations because they allow them to forgo the five sentences of exposition that are required to understand any subject of objective policy relevance—sentences that, in some cases, news outlets literally cannot afford.
This phenomenon is not without consequence. Journalists and analysts complained that, at the height of the coverage of the fracas surrounding Hamilton, a story of much more objective value had been buried: Donald Trump’s $25 million fraud settlement. This was no small matter. In that same period, investigative reporters revealed that President-elect Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest verged on corruption. His global business empire includes ties to the governments of Panama, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, and Indonesia. Trump has made millions from deals with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is currently financing a Saudi hotel project he has said he “would want to protect.” Even after the election, Trump has been photographed with wealthy developers from India who are involved in two of the Trump organization’s five separate hotel projects in South Asia.
These stories are complicated. They take time to understand and require some underlying knowledge of American civics to follow along. It isn’t as though there was no reporting on these issues; there was. Those stories did not drive the national conversation, however, because audiences were not interested. Exposition doesn’t get clicks or eyeballs, and it doesn’t drive revenue. And as the Hamilton news cycle gives way to outrage over a handful of dreadful Trump-supporting racists celebrating his election in a hotel ballroom, the cycle begins anew.
“Fake news” is a real problem, but it attracts a credulous audience because news consumers have been primed to expect emotional satisfaction from the news. That’s not the media’s fault; it’s their patrons.