You know why they call it “clickbait”? Because people click on it.
But if people really want the news media to change its behavior and judgment, the incentives have to change.
Gergahty is commenting on the Covington Catholic imbroglio. Let’s be honest, it is a ginned up story. It is media making a mountain out of a molehill. Hardly the only place where that is true right now. Let’s be honest about the two “hottest” names in Democrat politics right now, best gaffe-machine since Joe Biden – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke who simply defies categorization at the moment. Both have massive media value, meaning they are great clickbait, but are ill-informed if not ignorant of history, how our government works and most especially human nature. Their only serious qualification for office is, in fact, their media presence.
Then there is the tit-for-tat between the president and the speaker. It reminds me of nothing so much as a professional wrestling promo. That is to say, the build up for the fight when there is no actual fighting going on. What they are really battling for is to dominate the narrative (see Geraghty above for more on narratives) not actually over anything of governmental substance.
Speaking of, did you know that professional wrestling is exploding in popularity right now? There are a lot of reasons for it, but one of them is that a few decades ago pro wrestling admitted publicly that it was “fake.” That is to say, outcomes of “matches” are pre-determined and the wrestlers often work together in the ring to accomplish moves and put on a show. With that public acknowledgement pro wrestling moved from being a sport to being a form of performance art. That it did so at the same time as the explosion of social media has proven most fortuitous for the art form. There are now endless on-line discussions about artists, their performances, and the stage on which they deliver them. These discussions created a thirst for alternatives and thus the explosion in new promotions when it had started to look like WWE was simply going to be all that was left of pro wrestling.
One of the great debates in wrestling right now is about what causes a wrestler to succeed – in ring performance, or microphone skills. Particularly in the TV dominant WWE, performers often succeed based on their promos far more than their athletics in the ring. Many of the alternative promotions are attracting attention by featuring people who were great in the ring, but never got anywhere in WWE because their promo work was less than stellar. Meanwhile, there is a significant cadre of people bored with WWE because the in-ring wrestling, save perhaps at the pay-per-views, is pretty mundane. It all raises the question of what is the substance of pro wrestling – what goes on in the ring, or what happens on the mike?
Politics, because it requires getting elected, requires getting people’s attention and that requires media. And thus a parallel between politics and pro wrestling becomes apparent. What is the substance of holding office, being media savvy and therefore getting elected, or what one does once in the office in terms of legislation and policy? It used to be the media savvy/getting elected stuff was a brief period every few years, but now it seems to be a full time occupation. Which just might go a long way towards explaining the rise of the bureaucratic state.
Which takes me back to Geraghty. Changing the incentives for the media will help in situations like the Covington Catholic one, but I am not sure it is sufficient for the bigger picture. We need office holders more interested in what they do with the office than in obtaining and keeping the office – maybe even people willing to risk the office for the sake of what they want to do with it. We need a public that is more interested in what is happening in government than in viewing government as a form of entertainment.
Frankly, it seems to me we have exactly the media and the government we are asking for. We follow the clickbait. People thought they were electing different when they elected Trump, but in the end, his magic was simply that he knew how to dominate each and every news cycle. Well, that and an awful, horrific opponent. We cannot change the media incentive unless we change the appetites of the American public.
So, if you are complaining about how things are right now, look no further than your own viewing and clicking habits. More importantly, look at those of your kids and grandkids.