Most of all, I am disoriented by the speed at which major news events pass into the rearview mirror in contemporary America.
Last week a man was alleged to have mailed in letters to the Pentagon containing the raw material for the ricin poison. No one seems to have been harmed, but if this had happened in, say, 2003, it would have been a major news story for weeks or months. Now I type “ricin” into Google and the top news results are a week old. There hasn’t been much coverage lately, nor have the 200-plus people in my Twitter feed been talking about it.
You might think this is because President Donald Trump is commanding all the attention, but even Trump-related stories often pass from view quickly. The New York Times published 15,000 words, taking up an entire section of the physical newspaper, documenting alleged tax fraud by Trump and his associated businesses. In earlier times such a story might have prompted impeachment proceedings or a presidential resignation. As it stands, I’m not seeing that this story has much in the way of legs. Trump supporters either ignore it or dismiss the source, while for Trump critics it probably isn’t surprising.
Or remember that anonymous New York Times op-ed “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration”? It described how Trump’s advisers and Cabinet often subvert his leadership by walking back his “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.” In the Obama administration, that kind of confession would have been the top story of the year. Now it seems like ages since the article was published, though it was only Sept. 5. Even the debate as to who might have written the op-ed, or about the proper role of advisers to the chief executive, died down after the first few days.
I’m going to resist the temptation to attribute all this to attention deficit disorder. The shelf life for, say, sports stories doesn’t seem to have changed much. So what might be going on in American political life?
The naive hypothesis is that we keep turning our attention to the very latest events because so much is happening so quickly. But there have been periods in the past when a lot was happening, such as the financial crisis of a decade ago, and the news cycle seemed “stickier” then. So this can’t be the entire story.
An alternate theory is that there are actually very few “true events” happening, but there is lots of froth on the surface. Maybe there is only one “big event” happening, one major transformation underway: a change in the willingness of American political leaders to break with previous norms. If the change is mostly in one direction, then maybe it’s enough to debate only the most recent news.
That may sound abstract, so here is a concrete analogy. Let’s say you are on a sinking ship. You might focus more on the current water level than on where it was in the recent past, except maybe to help you estimate the rate of flooding. In more technical terms, talking about the event of the day is a “sufficient statistic” for talking about the last two years.
The shorter news cycle also may result from greater political polarization. If people don’t frame events in a common way, then a discussion of those events might not last very long. Conversation will return very quickly to the underlying differences in worldviews, and discussion of any particular event will get trampled by a much larger philosophical debate. It does seem like we have been repeating the same general arguments about Trump, populism, gender and governing philosophy for some time now, and we are not about to stop.
Possibly the shorter news cycles are also a result of greater general disillusionment with politics and especially with elites, a theme outlined in Martin Gurri’s forthcoming book “The Revolt of the Public.” The really fun stuff might instead be watching mixed martial arts, debating social norms about gender and browsing the Instagram feeds of your friends.
Finally, maybe we’re all just better at digesting news events more quickly. Perhaps every possible observation, insight and argument gets put on Facebook and Twitter within a day or two, and much of this material is archived. What’s the point of repeating these debates every few months?
No matter which mix of those hypotheses applies, the shorter news cycle is probably here to stay, and the changes it will bring are just beginning. And now if you will forgive me, I need to go draft my next column.
— Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University.