There have been plenty of words written about the evolution of televised news, as authors, journalists, and economists have all shed light on the transformation from once-dignified, bipartisan reflections of global events to pundit-driven, around-the-clock infotainment. In 2017, that evolution has never been more apparent, with “fake news” and social media feeding into individual fears and opinions while discouraging fact-checking and critical thinking. But while audiences on both sides of the political aisle agree that the divisive nature of news has been detrimental on all accounts, they continue to consume it, constantly awaiting the next development as to be as “informed” as possible come election day.
In a lot of ways, news has become like fast food; while CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News fight for your attention by putting their shine on the same damn burger, fledgling news channels and web-based broadcasts are putting out greasy, calorie-loaded products meant to gain traction on those tired of said burger. Furthermore, the 24-hour news cycle propagates a perpetual demand for content, and so, much like fast food, these channels become more concerned with serving their customers than creating an actual, valuable product. And, like fast food once more, their work is incredibly addicting, all serving a specific spin on the truth that reaffirms the opinions of those watching.
Though it’s certainly easy to deride this approach to news dissemination as unethical, biased, or cheap, the truth of the matter is that the 24-hour news cycle is not so much in the information game as it is in the storytelling game. These channels are telling a story, recapping their version of the day in passing, each with their own portrayal and depiction of the characters and the action, akin to a more colorful and sensational version of real-life Rashomon. And just as a serious, grounded drama and an exploitative B-movie bloodbath could ostensibly tell the same story, the result is nevertheless one that will leave the target audience wanting more, tuning in the next day to see what happened next.
For instance, one does not have to look further than current U.S. President (as of this writing) Donald Trump, perhaps the most controversial figure of the 21st Century and a true political anomaly. In the 24-hour news cycle, the American people have watched Trump evolve from a pop culture punchline to a race-baiting political candidate to a Republican juggernaut to a doomed sexual predator to the 45th President of the United States. Yet each media outlet painted a different picture of Trump’s stranger-than-fiction story. FOX portrayed Trump as a hero for the disenfranchised working class voter. CNN portrayed Trump as a controversy magnet with shocking rhetoric and a penchant for faux-pas. MSNBC portrayed Trump as a villain who represented the potential for a racially and politically contentious country.
In some ways, the obsessive and polarizing storytelling within the news media is somewhat vital to the zeitgeist, as it offers a very specific type of manufactured catharsis. By turning to real life stories of war, crime, corruption, intolerance, faith and wealth, the 24-hour news media keeps you hooked by pressing your buttons, teasing a story and just how it may affect your life, and as you become more emotionally invested in these stories, the more you’ll find yourself in a repeated cycle of frustration and relief as it returns over and over again. And while certain details may leave you a nervous wreck (especially in these troublesome times), they also offer potential viewers an outlet for their grievances by bringing relevance to the issues they care about, which will eventually cause you to blow off steam and slink back into your normality.
For some of the newer outlets in the 24-hour news cycle, their focus is to replace the “build-and-release” approach to storytelling in favor of bombarding audiences with heightened opinions over facts. By using social media as an outlet to spread viral clips about issues rather than in-depth stories, the 24-hour news cycle has given birth to online outlets such as The Blaze, U.S. Uncut, Infowars and Occupy Democrats, in which homegrown pundits have risen to fame by putting a biting spin on otherwise common arguments to their audiences. The story they tell is not one of how things are, but how they should be in an ideological sense without actually offering a practical solution. In other words, it’s armchair politics, but considering the topics are also those covered in the mainstream media, they classify themselves as news. While there may be an ethical gray area in positing one’s core political beliefs as fact, the main problem with this approach is that, in storytelling terms, they’re putting the individual watching and reading as the character at the center of the action rather than the world-at-large. And once you’ve gotten the feeling that your positions and values are more important than those of the populace around you, it’s easy to start staying up nights, stewing in anger and piecing together conspiracies with the thinnest of strings.
On the flip side of that coin, this approach to news—especially those that make the most of the “24-hour” side of the news cycle— is leading masses to shut off completely from current events. After all, considering all the mayhem erupting around the world, politics and news can be incredibly overwhelming and exhausting, which will often turn people to get their news from headlines on social media or from whoever will make them feel important again. Add in the existential reality that most of the debated issues will never be permanently solved, and suddenly, following the news has gone from a daily information check-up to a disheartening mental gauntlet.
In that regard, there’s certainly been a ripple effect that has affected the type of entertainment people have been gravitating to as of late, namely films, series, and video games that feature much different worlds than our own. Whether it’s spending some time in Westeros on Game of Thrones, the post-apocalyptic worst-case-scenario fantasy of The Walking Dead, the futuristic duality-driven expanse of Westworld or the high-octane mirror-world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the world at large has been nearly desperate to find entertainment where the environments are not even reminiscent of those in their everyday life. And while escapism has always been a major part of show business in general, the decline of low-concept studio fare in favor of blockbuster entertainment is certainly a trend indicative of the world-weariness of audiences.
Even more interesting is that those who have eschewed the news have instead found interest in other forms of non-fiction, which I’ll describe as “compact news” for the sake of context. For the most part, “compact news” is the whittling down of an issue to a singular, historically-based perspective, whether it be in the form of a documentary film, a true crime podcast or first-person investigative journalism a la Vice. With the benefit of hindsight and distance from the subjects at hand, compact news offers two things that most news outlets, mainstream or otherwise, cannot: tangible emotion and a sense of closure, which emphasizes a more satisfying narrative than the 24-hour news cycle. Interestingly, compact news is usually operating with equal parts fascination and convenience, and seeing how the three aforementioned examples have been thriving exponentially in the streaming marketplace, they may even have a greater ramification on the future of news media in the years to come.
Yet there’s a still a thrill associated with the 24-hour news cycle, and while some outlets are doubling down on their respective political leanings, there is hope again for a less narrative-based news media. On one hand, there’s the simple art of longevity; while Glenn Beck’s The Blaze hosts one of the most popular pundits in conservative media with Tomi Lahren, Beck himself has since eased on his hard-right stance, supporting Black Lives Matter and becoming staunchly and vocally anti-Trump, while former FOX News golden child Megyn Kelly has since jumped ship to the left-leaning shores of NBC News. On the other hand, there’s Dan Rather’s News and Guts, the former journalist’s recently established news entity dedicated to providing news coverage with a sense of dignity and truth over spectacle and storytelling. And while the 24-hour news cycle will never go away, one can hope that the business of information will be less about political agendas and divisive opinions, and more about depicting the truth, including a world that inspires promising potential over perpetual anxiety.