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The latest tax cut “would kill 10,000 people annually.” Net Neutrality was going to “end the internet as we know it.” False charges of Russian collusion were promoted with daily cable news “blockbusters” that it was “the beginning of the end” and the “walls were closing in.”
Our hot-take media survives on internet clicks and 15-minute windows of TV viewership. The easiest way to play that game is to present everything as a crisis. A slow news week doesn’t slow down the “breaking news” crawl warning of the latest way the world will end. Climate change, a local election, and that joke the comedian told on Netflix doom our society and you need to keep watching to find out how long we have left.
Then, an actual crisis comes. Coronavirus, for instance. A rapidly spreading pandemic that has killed thousands in China and Italy and is now appearing on our shores. The good news for talking heads is that they have actual information to provide to viewers. They don’t need to hype, embellish, or exaggerate. Just report the latest data, transmit important statements from medical experts and political leaders, and share safety tips.
Our hot-take media has replaced boring play-by-play coverage with wall-to-wall color commentary. Their ability to calmly report facts has atrophied. Instead, it’s good vs. evil and Republicans always get the black hats.
As reports of COVID-19 emerged out of Wuhan, President Trump was attacked for his “xenophobic” travel restrictions from China. Today, he’s attacked for saying that the virus started in Wuhan. His national address last night was calm, sober, and non-partisan. While he spoke, journalists across Twitter railed against his “stupid” overreaction to restrict travel from the European Union. Then they insisted it wasn’t nearly enough. It seems everything the government does is too much or too little — often both at the same time.
Today, social media was even uglier. Biden and Bernie were praised for taking partisan shots at Trump in their speeches. When Trump replied in kind, he was savaged for being partisan. Oh, and racist. Because, black hat.
In an actual crisis, we need calm, sobriety, and caution. Add in some rigid analysis that inspires effective action rather than panic, rage, or despair. Instead, we have Don Lemon screeching at John Kasich for being too in the bag for Trump. Peggy Noonan advising Americans to panic. David Brooks collapsing in his Manhattan penthouse and weeping into his inhaler.
Serious times require a serious media, but mainstream journalists are no longer interested in that role. All they have are dunks on Trump, hysterical headlines, and hot takes all the way down.
If you’re interested, I wrote a more sober assessment for the local paper a couple of days ago, just posted this morning. Unfortunately, it’s factual and calm, so I won’t be getting that Manhattan penthouse anytime soon.