Jack Shafer: “The Trump drop-off has benefited journalists, giving them a chance to dismount from the junk news treadmill”

From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column on politico.com headlined “The Trump News Show Is Over and We’re All Healthier For It”:

What have you been doing with your time? The numbers tell us that the average news consumer is watching a whole lot less cable news and has gone on a restricted online news diet. Over the past year, the major cable channels have lost from 34 percent to 43 percent of their audiences. The New York Times website lost almost 34 percent of total unique visitors between June 2020 and June 2021, and the Washington Post has seen a similar 27 percent drop in uniques over the same period. Nearly every online news leaderboard has taken a hit, whether they have paywalls or not: CNN.com, uniques down 20 percent; the Atlantic down almost 52 percent; Business Insider down 31 percent; POLITICO down 44 percent.

Outlets sometimes dispute the precision of external counts such as ComScore’s, but no one argues the downward trend isn’t real. There’s been no C-suite purge, however, because the mass defection of millions of eyeballs doesn’t equal a business crisis. That’s because the bulging ratings collected by cable news were a Donald Trump-related anomaly, helping to move advertising. The entire industry anticipated the decline whenever Trump left office. For Fox News Channel and CNN, the more lucrative and more reliable source of revenue has always been monthly subscriber fees paid by viewers through the cable company. For non-cable outlets, higher page-views related to Trump were difficult to monetize. Despite Trump’s prediction that the media business would croak without his agitations, we see the opposite. New hiring continues at the established outlets, coverage is expanding and acquisitions at high valuations continue. Robert Allbritton just sold his POLITICO properties, as you may have read, for more than $1 billion.

What the drop-off actually signifies is that news readers and viewers have resumed their previous consumption habits after several years of gorging on news the way a drunk who crashes his yacht into the island of free pizza might scarf down a hundred slices of pepperoni. Now that Trump Island is gone, news consumers have happily gone cold turkey….The drop-off has also benefited journalists, too, giving them a chance to dismount from the junk news treadmill they had been running. The market for news has miraculously right-sized itself, leaving us as well-informed as before and about half as crazy.

The causes behind the “great media crash” are self-evident. Last year was a campaign year, which always causes news consumption to spike. It was also the last year — barring his reelection in 2024 — of President Donald Trump. Trump was a one-man perpetual news machine, forever feeding reporters high-calorie, low-nutrition tidbits and serving dumpsters of coverable commotion, some of which was forgotten the day after it was reported….

The saturation Trump coverage was justified journalistically — a rogue and unpredictable chief executive is a very dangerous thing, and if he uses the Constitution as a kitchen towel you’ve got to call him on it. Preserving a record of Trump’s transgressions was essential, so let’s not quarrel with the volume of coverage. But in retrospect, once Trump had self-stereotyped himself as a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel and a crybaby, few of us had to read beyond the headline and first paragraph to get the message….

We’ve been indoctrinated since grade school to believe that partaking the news was essential to citizenship, democracy and our American way of life: Study the issues! Debate the issues! But nobody ever told us that a thing that’s a nutrient at one dosage can become a poison when quintupled. During Trumpmania, billions of man-hours were needlessly burned reading and viewing Trump stories that could have better gone toward gardening, parenting, reading, hobbying, drinking, sexting and even sitting on the porch doing nothing. Each of us could have learned a foreign language or learned to play guitar instead of reading about him from day to night for four years….

Having been towed to the depths by the news binge, we have only now surfaced to reorder our priorities. First, we must never forget the way we let Trumpmania upend our media diet and turn us all into fatted hogs. When Trump returns — or the next Trump uses his attention-grabbing methods — we should be prepared to resist his caterwauling. Somebody should create a browser add-in that would remind us when we’ve over-partaken of the news. CNN could add a product disclaimer to its programs noting that over-watching TV news can mess with your mind….

If Trump deserves major blame for boosting viewership, Joe Biden should get some credit for relieving us of our 24/7 news duties. You don’t have to be a Biden fan — I’m not — to appreciate the way his conduct has reduced national political news from the totality of existence to something more like a companion. If anything, Biden has downplayed his role in the national drama to levels just below perception. Had we not bolted from Afghanistan, how much would we be reading about him?…

Ask anybody who has successfully lost weight, and they’ll tell you the first task is portion control. To push the metaphor, go ahead and fill your plate with all the news you like, but use a nine-inch plate from the 1950s instead of a modern 13-inch platter. And as you read, consult your sense of satiety and act accordingly.

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