We have all had the experience at some point in our lives of sitting across from someone whose favorite subject is themselves. This is true of nearly everyone to some respect – but for some people, it is a particularly acute problem. It means that the most important topic at the table revolves completely around them. You may have had the experience of asking someone a question at the beginning of lunch – about their life, a book, a recent trip – and then realize as you go to pay the check that they have not asked you a single question since about your own equivalent life, reading, or travel.
Personally I find people like this endearing and interesting, particularly if they have some enjoyable insights into subject matter. I talk enough during the day and it keeps me from running out of words, and a conversation with a smart, witty guest can leave you feeling rejuvenated even if they’re talking the entire time about what they are up to. But imagine if you were only ever around people like this, who wanted to spend an overwhelming percentage of a day-long conversation talking about what they and their ideological allies have been up to, the challenges they and their friends face in such trying times, and most of all, the petty slights they have to endure on a daily basis.
Congratulations! You are watching cable news.
Yesterday President Donald Trump did several significant things. There was real news yesterday regarding the differences in policy between the administrations – not just the executive orders and the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but also the advancement of Mike Pompeo to head the CIA and the clash between Senate Republicans and Chuck Schumer over a broken nomination vote deal. In other words, this was not like one of those Mondays in the summer when there is so little to talk about in the world of sports that Mike and Mike are reduced to arguing about which fruit you ought to wash. There was plenty of real news to talk about.
Instead, journalists were still binging on fake news. Cable news outlets spent segment after segment rehashing the narrative question of how Sean Spicer did in his first briefing and the question of the contentious relationship between this White House and the press. They were still talking about crowd size and the CIA speech from the weekend last night, instead of paying attention to the actual policies that matter to people and will impact their lives.
The situation really hasn’t changed in the twenty years since James Fallows wrote his piece for the Atlantic about why people hate the media.
When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public’s representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do so—as at the typical White House news conference—with a discourtesy and rancor that represent the public’s views much less than they reflect the modern journalist’s belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile.
The limited curiosity that elite reporters display in their questions is also evident in the stories they write once they have received answers. They are interested mainly in pure politics and can be coerced into examining the substance of an issue only as a last resort.
Perhaps a few of the smarter members of the media will see past this in the coming months. But for now, it is somewhat astonishing how they are playing into Trump’s hands by focusing on every shiny object he throws in their direction, every invitation he offers for them to talk about themselves, and their relationship with the president, as opposed to what the president is actually doing.