America is burned out on the news

It’s okay. You can take a break.

In a cathartic new ad for Extra gum called “For When It’s Time,” a horde of hairy, disheveled shut-ins learn that “We are back! We can see people again,” and burst from their trash-filled lairs like a bunch of Brood X cicadas, to mate and cavort and, of course, chew gum. “Tag yourself, I’m the carrying her heels in her hand,” one acquaintance wrote on Twitter. Tagging myself was easy. Clearly I was the harried Zoom mom clad in pajamas, flying out the front door in a state of disbelief. What really clinched it was what was beside that front door: a heap of newspaper delivery bags, full and unopened.

Not to point fingers at an overworked character in a commercial, but it seemed this woman had not been keeping up with the news. And there, I can relate. A lot of us can, in fact. And that marks a major change from just a few months ago.

In the year running up to January, the news had never seemed more compelling. We were watching a gripping drama, starring us. We impeached the president, we were scourged by a viral pandemic, hundreds of thousands of parents and grandparents died, cops killed black men and women on the street and in their homes. We held an election that seemed a judgment on our country as much as a judgment on the candidates. Some of us fell down a conspiracy rabbit hole and tried to overturn the election. The man in charge said whatever he felt like, all night long, lying and insulting people and upending the law or markets or people’s safety by his word alone. We needed the news. The news was how we found out about threats and casualties and wrongdoing and the gossip we relied on for a bit of relief, and it was how we learned where danger might strike next. A few artists and teachers and farmers among my friends (i.e., people who weren’t wasting time online all day) confessed to me that they had decided to tune out, that the hourly micro-updates on our screwed-up world weren’t doing anything for them and they had a better life with less information. But most people I knew were hooked.

And then, suddenly, things changed. Voters rallied around the center and replaced the blustering reality TV star with an even-tempered older politician who promised to put the room back to rights, bolstered by people who knew stuff, with basically good intentions for community welfare. Twitter quieted down to a simmer, with the presidential account devoted to statements on health care and infrastructure and polite holiday wishes to various religious constituencies. Over 100 days, the administration got more than half the population started on a vaccine against the virus, passed a big relief bill, and replaced department chiefs who had devoted their careers to thwarting those departments with normal pro-governance professionals. Whether or not you had loved the previous regime, you had to acknowledge that this administration was lower drama. The showman had been replaced with a statesman -- steadier leadership, but almost certainly a worse TV show.

And so, fewer people are watching. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi recently summed up the collapse. From early February to late March, CNN lost 45 percent of its prime time audience. MSNBC’s audience dropped 26 percent. Even Fox News, which is running weird alternate-reality save-the-kids programming about how masks are child abuse, liberals hate Dr. Seuss, and migrant children are being conscripted to read Kamala Harris’s picture book, is down 6 percent. National newspapers, whose subscriber numbers had been buoyed by a firehose stream of must-read investigative reporting during the insanity of the Trump years, are down, too. “The [Washington] Post, for example, saw the number of unique visitors fall 26 percent from January to February, and 7 percent from a year ago. The New York Times lost 17 percent compared with January and 16 percent over last February,” Farhi reported.

A friend who tracks engagement at a medium-sized news organization says they’re seeing the same thing. Traffic is down around 70% from the enormous high of March 2020, when terrified readers devoured all they could about the little-understood pandemic. But it’s still well above where it was in March 2019, suggesting that some of the growth over the Trump era may stick. My friend also pointed out that there could be some other reasons for the drop since January. Many reporters who had been doggedly covering aspects of the Trump administration have switched beats, which has meant a publishing lull and a change in focus as they dig in on new assignments under Biden.

Some of those reporters are experiencing a double exhaustion, special to those consuming the news with one hand and forking it out with the other. As the WNYC show The Takeaway noted last month, a number of prominent journalists have recently stepped back from their duties, citing burnout. I myself hit a wall last year in trying to work around the clock as an investigations editor while fielding a baby without childcare. Other colleagues I’ve talked to this year have suffered Covid themselves, lost loved ones to the disease, cared for children in distress, and faced both financial crisis and isolation. It’s no wonder that for every journalist who eats disaster for breakfast—ahem, my uncannily energetic journalist spouse—there’s another who has finally had to acknowledge they need some kind of break.

In my own house, while we maintain a basic grasp on what’s happening, we find ourselves more and more often filling the 11 o’clock hour with “The Nevers” or “Call My Agent” instead of the daily outrages of MSNBC. We are tired; we want a little escape, whether to supernatural Victorian Britain or to pettiness at a before-times Parisian talent agency. We are hungry for drama that is not our own, and deaths that are fictional, not those of neighbors and friends. If there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that more drama is on its way: hurricanes, shootings, skullduggery, the usual. But for this small clearing in the storm clouds of suspense, I can only give thanks. We needed it.

What to read

The literary world has been preoccupied over the past month with the abrupt collapse of the reputation of Philip Roth biographer Blake Bailey, who went from New York Times bestselling author and critical darling to having his book pulled by publisher W.W. Norton, after multiple women emerged to allege that, as an eighth-grade teacher, he had groomed female students for sex and later raped both a former student and at least one other woman. Many smart writers have tackled the implications of this dreadful story, including what it means for Roth’s legacy to be handled by a man with this approach to women. But perhaps most searing was the first-person account of Eve Crawford Peyton in Slate, describing what it has been like for the man who in her childhood first helped her take herself seriously as a writer to so profoundly betray her trust by her early twenties. Credit also to critic Laura Marsh at the New Republic, who saw something fishy about how Bailey wrote about Roth and women even before the allegations emerged. She now looks like quite the close reader indeed.  

I know I’m always telling you to read Eli Saslow, but man, this Washington Post piece on the plight of small landlords whose tenants have completely stopped paying rent captures a knotty problem. Usually my sympathies tend toward renters who can’t pay—see sociologist Matthew Desmond’s fantastic book Evicted for a narrative account of eviction’s cumulative toll on families—but there are also hapless middle-class people depending on homes they own and manage for their basic income. Right now, Saslow writes, the federal pandemic eviction freeze has led to some renters no longer feeling any need to pay, and to what the government estimates is “a third of small landlords…at risk of bankruptcy or foreclosure as the pandemic continues.”

What to consume

This New York Times story on young new players of solo guitar is full of amazing talents I’d never heard of before. I’m particularly liking Yasmin Williams’s dreamy work. Browse around, see what you like.

The Interpreter was off duty itself the last couple weeks, as life intervened, but I’ll see you next week, if events don’t get in the way. Here’s wishing you all the energy you want, and all the rest you need.