Sensationalism in the media is not a new thing. It has been prevalent for decades, after the Nixon administration kind of shattered the tentative good will that kept reporters from trying to dig up any dirt they could on political candidates or office holders. What’s new is the speed with which they can communicate this dirt – spreading it to thousands of iPhones in record time, notably, record time during which no one is able to refute or double check the claim, thereby increasing the number or unsubstantiated rumors which can turn into fact very rapidly, whether intentionally or unintentionally crafted.
One of the negative repercussions of a sensationalist media is a lack of complexity that accompanies it. Rather than delve into boring details of policy and history, statistics, graphs and analytics, reporters and writers are increasingly pressured to write simplistic, snapshot articles, with arguments that use “This plan will hurt millions of people!” as their main tenet. This does a disservice to the American people, though we may not see it as such at the time of consumption. Everyone loves to click on a flashy headline, and doing so provides economic incentive for writers to churn out “click bait” material that often lacks proper, thorough analyses. One of the effects of our culture’s willingness to engage more with slogans and mantras that produce an immediate, unreasoned emotional reaction, than with long, logical and arduous arguments, is the success of Donald Trump’s Twitter usage as a viable way of communicating policy and ideas.
Donald Trump is a very nimble player in the social media arena, capitalizing on the 120 character limit that Twitter offers. How easy the platform makes it for people to succinctly express an opinion, without having any extra time during which they need to back it up or provide evidence. At least when giving a speech or engaging in debate on-air, politicians usually have at least a half hour, if not longer, during which they must state a position, explain why they feel that way, provide evidence, and then explain how their proposed solution will fix the problem. On Twitter, however, there is no such cumbersome minimum time limit. Instead there’s a very restrictive maximum, which he has worked to his advantage. (Just imagine if he went on national television and read one of his tweets instead of giving a lengthy speech. It would take about 8 seconds, the screen would go black, people would blink in confusion, and then the coverage would cut to news anchors who would spend the next 12 hours dissecting every word.)
This trend towards minimal complexity is clearly displayed in the current primacy of Twitter messages as a form of communication between the government and the people. Many politicians have increasingly taken to Twitter as a way of connecting with constituents, especially young ones, and it is a blatant example of how people are so eager to have a quick snapshot rather than a long, in-depth argument or analysis.
This may lead to a vicious cycle wherein politicians say one very vague statement on Twitter, which is routinely disputed by media organizations, because online fights are an ingenious form of click bait. Remember when people in middle school used to read Facebook fights, watching the comments get more and more vicious as the night went on? Well now those childish Facebook fights have grown up and pervaded civil discussion between the government, the media and the people. The trend of politicians directly addressing people through social media is also frightening to traditional media, as it kind of removes the need for the middle man, so this might pressure traditional media companies to pick fights with politicians to show people that the media is still an important check on what politicians say. Over time, this dynamic could lead to ever-increasing animosity in public discussion between politicians and the media, as both would be fighting for the attention of the audience, and fighting with each other would be a good way for both to get name recognition by exploiting the cultural importance of drama.
What might this mean when my generation is running for president? I worry that in the worst case scenario, politicians will have to undergo increasingly reality-television-show-esque critiques by the media and the people, by which I mean a superficial, vapid, but also rabid type of attention, which will dissuade calm, rational, intelligent people from running for office.
The people who elect to go on The Bachelor are not earnest people looking for a relationship who just have had a hard time and think that going on this TV show and fighting with a bunch of other women is the perfect way to find true love. They are people who like money and attention, and are willing to subject themselves to the cat fights in order to gain financially, achieve fame, and then maybe get the side perk of winning over the bachelor (which really is only a benefit because then they get to divorce him in two years for another cover photo in People magazine).
I sincerely hope that running for president does not become an undertaking like The Bachelor, where the real, important thing (in this case saving people, fixing the nation’s problems, making the country a little bit safer and healthier and more prosperous) becomes a side perk in the face of all the fame and money that go into campaigning and suffering the spotlight of media attention.