It’s hard to remember what it felt like to keep up with current events before Donald Trump took office. A recurring theme of his presidency has been the hijacking of public attention, distracting us with the wildest possible proposals while sliding slightly more innocuous ones across the finish line.
For me, it feels like my mind has been the target of a prolonged DDOS attack, flooded with news that I don’t have the bandwidth to understand or remember. Maybe I used to have the ability to hold the major events of a month, or longer, in my brain at one time, but it sure doesn’t seem that way anymore. I wanted to investigate if there is actually more news under Trump, or if my mind is just more fatigued by a subsuming news cycle.
In order to do this, I turned to the New York Times Archive API, a database of all the headlines ever run in the newspaper. I looked for patterns in the pace of today’s news and compared them to the news cycle when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 to see what accounted for my feelings, and, as it turns out, Occam’s Razor is vindicated: there’s one reason that our news cycle feels so broken, and it’s President Donald Trump. From 2016 to 2018, The New York Times ran 12,082 stories that mentioned Trump in the headline, compared to 6,245 stories that mentioned President Obama in the headline from 2008 to 2010.
There’s a twisted sort of feedback loop exhibited here. Trump won the presidency thanks in large part to his ability to create headlines: during the 2016 presidential primaries, he received 32 percent of all campaign coverage on broadcast networks, more than the entire democratic primary. But disproportionate media coverage because of Trump’s unprecedented run for the presidency doesn’t explain why the number of Trump-related headlines far exceeds the number of Obama-related headlines at the same point in their respective presidencies, long after Trump’s novelty had worn off.
Of course, our president does all his own tweeting, each session sending the media into a paroxysm, and remains stubbornly committed to many of his political promises, dragging out pointless negotiations. Then there’s the turmoil within his administration: the departure rate among high rank officials and cabinet members is unprecedented, and of course he has to tweet about all of those too. And then newspapers have to write stories on those tweets. And so on and so forth into hell.
Outlets like the Times have attempted to take the air out of the daily churn by conducting deep investigations into the greed, stupidity, and criminality in the Trump administration, but these stories are quickly whisked away by the Trump Distraction Express.
I also looked at the Times’ coverage of the investigation into potential Russian collusion with the Trump campaign led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Since Mueller’s appointment in May 2017, there have been almost 500 stories about the investigation in the Times to keep up with. This is surely news that deserves coverage, but it feels beyond human capacity to keep up. The rhythm of these events all but guarantees a slow descent into apathy; how can anyone be expected to keep up with this, and why not give up?
It’s tempting to turn away from the sheer volume of news, but total ignorance somehow feels worse. Many people derided Erik Hagerman, the Ohioan profiled by the New York Times who instituted a current events blockade because he felt news consumption wasn’t doing him any good. Yes, there is privilege in feeling unaffected by politics, but he was also responding to the pressure felt by many of us: choosing between sane minds and intact morals.