Whatever you might say about the last four years, it certainly was good for the news business. It was one long endless loop of driving past a horrific traffic accident. Try as we might, we just couldn’t avoid looking.
But according to Internet analysis tool Alexa.com, that may be over. I ran some traffic rank reports for major news portals and they all look the same: a ramp-up over the past 90 days to the beginning of February, and then a precipitous drop off a cliff.
While all the top portals have a similar pattern, it’s most obvious on Foxnews.com.
It was as if someone said, “Show’s over folks. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.” And after we all exhaled, we did!
Not surprisingly, we watch the news more when something terrible is happening. It’s an evolved hardwired response called negativity bias.
Good news is nice. But bad news can kill you. So it’s not surprising that bad news tends to catch our attention.
But this was more than that. We were fixated by Trump. If it were just our bias toward bad news, we would still eventually get tired of it.
That’s exactly what happened with the news on COVID-19. We worked through the initial uncertainty and fear, where we were looking for more information, and at some point moved on to the subsequent psychological stages of boredom and anger. As we did that, we threw up our hands and said, “Enough already!”
Bit when it comes to Donald Trump, there was something else happening.
It’s been said that Trump might have been the best instinctive communicator to ever take up residence in the White House. We might not agree with what he said, but we certainly were listening.
And while we -- and by we, I mean me -- think we would love to put him behind us, I believe it behooves us to take a peek under the hood of this particular obsession. Because if we fell for it once, we could do it again.
How the F*$k did this guy dominate our every waking, news-consuming moment for the past four years?
We may find a clue in Bob Woodward’s book on Trump, Rage. He explains that he was looking for a “reflector” -- a person who knew Trump intimately and could provide some relatively objective insight into his character.
Woodward found a rather unlikely candidate for his reflector: Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
I know, I know -- “Kushner?” Just bear with me.
In Woodward’s book, Kushner says there were four things you needed to read and “absorb” to understand how Trump’s mind works.
The first was an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan called “Over Trump, We’re as Divided as Ever.” It is not complimentary to Trump. But it does begin to provide a possible answer to our ongoing fixation. Noonan explains: “He’s crazy…and it’s kind of working.”
The second was the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Kushner paraphrased: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” In other words, in Trump’s world, it’s not direction that matters, it’s velocity.
The third was Chris Whipple’s book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. The insight here is that no matter how clueless Trump was about how to do his job, he still felt he knew more than his chiefs of staff.
Finally, the fourth was Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, by Scott Adams. That’s right -- Scott Adams, the same guy who created the "Dilbert" comic strip. Adams calls Trump’s approach “Intentional Wrongness Persuasion.”
Remember, this is coming from Kushner, a guy who says he worships Trump. This is not apologetic. It’s explanatory -- a manual on how to communicate in today’s world. Kushner is embracing Trump’s instinctive, scorched-earth approach to keeping our attention focused on him.
It’s -- as Peggy Noonan realized -- leaning into the “crazy.”
Trump represented the ultimate political tribal badge. All you needed to do was read one story on Trump, and you knew exactly where you belonged.
And maybe that was somehow satisfying to me.
There was something about standing one side or the other of the divide created by Trump that was tribal in nature.
It was probably the clearest ideological signal about what was good and what was bad that we’ve seen for some time, perhaps since World War II or the '60s -- two events that happened before most of our lifetimes.
Trump's genius was that he somehow made both halves of the world believe they were the good guys.
In 2018, Peggy Noonan said that “Crazy won’t go the distance.” I’d like to believe that’s so, but I’m not so sure. There are certainly others that are borrowing a page from Trump’s playbook. Right-wing Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are both doing “crazy” extraordinarily well. The fact that almost none of you had to Google them to know who they are proves this.
Whether we’re loving to love, or loving to hate, we are all fixated by crazy.
The problem here is that our media ecosystem has changed. “Crazy” used to be filtered out. But somewhere along the line, news outlets discovered that “crazy” is great for their bottom lines.
As former CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said when Trump became the Republican Presidential forerunner back in 2016, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damned good for CBS.”
Crazy draws eyeballs like, well, like crazy. It certainly generates more user views then “normal” or “competent.”
In our current media environment -- densely intertwined with the wild world of social media -- we have no crazy filters. All we have now are crazy amplifiers.
And the platforms that allow this all try to crowd on the same shaky piece of moral high ground.
It’s not their job to filter out crazy. It’s anti-free speech. It’s un-American. We should be smart enough to recognize crazy when we see it.
Hmmm. Well, we know that’s not working.