The Year the News Accelerated to Trump Speed
Posted December 29, 2017 2:07 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama was president earlier this year.
Really, eyewitness accounts from the period confirm this. It lasted nearly three weeks, it seems, or roughly the time elapsed since a Democrat won a Senate seat in Alabama, if memory serves, which it generally does not anymore.
That special election came before President Donald Trump helped usher a once-in-a-generation tax overhaul through Congress, but after he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which preceded threats to end U.S. aid to any countries that objected — and they did, en masse, in a remarkable U.N. vote that almost certainly took place somewhere in there, right? Possibly around the time the president accused a female senator of doing “anything” for campaign contributions, touching off tremors in the #MeToo movement he helped inspire, and alleged another wide-scale conspiracy against him in the upper reaches of the FBI.
Or was that one over the summer? When were those hurricanes again? Oh, and the Pentagon has been tracking possible alien visitation. That definitely came up.
One year out, this may be Trump’s greatest trick: His tornado of news-making has scrambled Americans’ grasp of time and memory, producing a sort of sensory overload that can make even seismic events — of his creation or otherwise — disappear from the collective consciousness and public view.
He is the magician who swallows a sword no one thought was part of the act, stuffs a dozen rabbits into a hat before the audience can count them — and then merrily tweets about “Fox & Friends” while the crowd strains to remember what show it had paid to attend in the first place.
Diplomatic crises. Human tragedies. The Mooch.
“We crammed six years in,” said Jason Chaffetz, a former Republican congressman from Utah who left the job at the end of June.
“We get to the point where we’re just done dealing with something,” said Matt Negrin, a digital producer at “The Daily Show,” recalling unresolved maelstroms like Trump’s feud with a Gold Star widow, his baseless claim that Obama wiretapped him and his defense of white nationalist supporters amid the deadly violence this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“That’s something, in my opinion, we should be talking about,” Negrin said. “But then the eclipse happened five days later. Not that Trump created the eclipse. But maybe.”
The disorientation has had far-reaching effects, shaping not only Trump’s public image but also the ways in which lawmakers, journalists and others in his ecosystem are compelled to operate.
It is not exactly that “nothing matters,” to borrow social media’s favorite nihilistic buzz-phrase of the Trump age. It is that nothing matters long enough to matter.
“Las Vegas and the church in Texas have fallen off the map — two of the most heinous mass murders in recent American history,” said Tom Brokaw, special correspondent at NBC News, flagging two episodes that would have, under previous circumstances, most likely remained seared in the national conversation. “It’s astonishing. It should be one of the defining stories not just of the year but of our time.”
There are a lot of those. And the president’s apparent triumph over the space-time continuum has created practical concerns across newsrooms and congressional offices, exacerbated by forces that predate Trump: the rise of Facebook and Twitter, the partisan instincts of cable news and, in the case of mass shootings, what many describe as a growing public imperviousness to horror.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who became a prominent gun control advocate after the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, described his task under Trump as a “triage” mission, “newly overwhelming” every day.
“As someone who works on an issue that is unfortunately driven by news cycles,” he said, “it makes it harder to try to focus attention.”
The most heinous shootings once dominated TV news for days. “Now,” Murphy said, “it doesn’t seem that there’s much more than 24 hours’ room for any story.”
Of course, Trump runs neither the networks nor the newspapers, much as he might prefer it at times, and the news media has come by its share of criticism honestly. Corralling the fire hose of White House doings has become a near-constant exercise in news judgment, with mixed returns.
Not every Twitter tremble requires mass attention. Not all executive skirmishes need a referee on every channel.
“Trump is just so dislocating for everybody that it’s making us all nuts,” said Peter Hamby, head of news at Snapchat. “There’s so much sexy, salacious, bananas-crazy news happening every single day. But there is a duty, I think, to cover substance.”
No one suggests the mandate is simple. Even Brokaw, a dean of meat-and-potatoes news delivery, allowed that the daily Trumpian churn is “not unimportant, and it’s got this Shakespearean quality about it.” And while there have been frenzied, tumultuous years before, present conditions are unique.
The 2016 presidential campaign season delivered rapid-fire insanities without precedent, but still adhered broadly to the rhythms of an election cycle: the primaries, the conventions, the debates, the big day.
In 2017, the chaos tends to be unscheduled.
The most oft-cited parallel is 1968 — a tinderbox of tragedy, protest and political upheaval — though the composition of the news industry then precluded the minute-to-minute ubiquity of 2017.
“It isn’t as though we haven’t seen a year like this,” said Nancy Gibbs, former editor-in-chief of Time magazine. “But in the past, we haven’t been mainlining it.”
Negrin, from “The Daily Show,” has pursued social media performance art to combat the times, hoping to drill down on a single, elusive subject. His Twitter handle includes the number of days since Trump promised to clarify his position on Hezbollah within 24 hours — a pledge, like many presidential utterances of nontrivial consequence, that went largely ignored in the typical swirl of the moment.
That was July.
Negrin offered two predictions for the new year: Trump is unlikely to hold forth on Hezbollah anytime soon.
And: “2018 is going to be 10 times worse.”