In a 1996 song with the prescient title “Information Wars,” Jackson Browne conveyed the “comforting glow” of the living room television set. “You get the world every night as a TV show,” he observed. “The latest spin on the shit we’re in, blow by blow. And the more you watch, the less you know.”
I stumbled upon Browne’s lyrics this week while taking a break from the interminable chatter about former President Donald Trump’s impending arrest. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the more I gorged on the coverage, the less I actually learned. Maybe you’ve felt it too, whether the story was Trump or the pandemic or the economy: The more you scroll, the less you know.
Some subsequent Googling surfaced Browne’s phrase, and then Danny Schechter’s 1997 book with the same theme, The More You Watch the Less You Know. After two-plus weeks of breathless Trump indictment coverage, I’m left wondering: Would a news consumer have been better off, better served, by watching and reading nothing about it? By waiting until the indictment was unsealed and digested before tuning in?
This is obviously just a hypothetical, since it goes against human nature as well as commercial, political, and sociological imperatives. As the judge assigned to the Trump hush money case, Justice Juan M. Merchan, wrote in a Monday night ruling allowing limited photography during the arraignment, “never in the history of the United States has a sitting or past President been indicted. The populace rightly hungers for the most accurate and current information available.”
There was very little concrete information ahead of Tuesday’s court appearance, so the void was filled by speculation and spectacle. This is not the fault of individual journalists, many of whom are continuing to do crucial work as the Trump case unfolds. Rather, it is the fault of a media ecosystem that is engineered to exhaust. Schechter, a TV producer–turned–media critic, recognized in the ’90s that “more” is often confused with “better.” Assign more stories to more writers; send more news crews to more locations; find more camera angles for more enticing coverage. Each individual contribution is worthy, I believe, but the end result is over the top.
Outside Trump’s Manhattan home, “on the west side of Fifth Avenue, it is just nonstop reporters, lenses, camera crews,” correspondent Annmarie Hordern said on Bloomberg TV Tuesday morning. “On the right were some Trump supporters. But the reporters far outweighed those supporters.”
That’s been the case ever since mid-March, when Trump was invited to appear before Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s grand jury—what my former employer, CNN, called “the clearest sign to date that the investigation was nearing its conclusion.”
Journalists at CNN, the New York Times, Insider, and other outlets advanced the story by cajoling sources and spending long hours at the courthouse. Trump, who has a long history of being both informed and misinformed by TV coverage, claimed in a March 18 post on Truth Social that he would be arrested “on Tuesday of next week,” which was March 21.
His post sent many more TV news crews to lower Manhattan. In place of “empty podiums,” the popular critique of how cable news covered every moment of Trump’s 2016 rallies, viewers saw “empty courthouses” for days on end. Unfortunately, interest in a story tends to be highest when the amount of information is lowest. (Consider the first hour of virtually any breaking news story.) And so it was with the rumored indictment: Nearly all of the coverage was speculative, about what the charges could be, and whether Trump would turn himself in, and whether supporters would rush to Manhattan to be by his side. When you read and scroll through all the supposition, you absorb what all the possibilities could be, but you actually learn very little. You wonder more, you ponder more, but you know less.
This dynamic is different in the right-wing media system that both leads and misleads the Republican Party and its voters. The more you watch of Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, the more you think you know. Fox and its ilk sell a false sense of certainty, of confidence that every investigation into Trump is actually an attack on Trump’s base. The pro-Trump media has had weeks to reinforce this message regardless of the details of the indictment. (Taking a longer view, they’ve been at it for eight years.) The object is not to inform, but to comfort and recruit and inspire revenge.
Trump’s understanding of Bragg’s criminal investigation was influenced by both his Fox friends and crumbs of reporting by major news outlets. The sheer amount of coverage distorted the story. “I think they’ve already dropped the case,” Trump told reporters on March 25, seemingly reacting to TV chatter about the status of the grand jury proceedings. On March 29, Politico and other outlets blasted out news alerts saying that the grand jury was going to take a month-long break. One edition of the Playbook PM newsletter was titled “Trump’s indictment limbo drags on to late April.” Trump’s lawyers reportedly breathed a sigh of relief. But the indictment was handed down the very next day.
The jurors were, in fact, scheduled to take a several-week-long break. CNN reported that Bragg made a “surprise move” by asking the grand jury to return the indictment on Thursday, March 30.
The press resorted to speculation because the indictment remained under seal. Would Trump be handcuffed? Would he smile for the mug shot? The more you scrolled, the more and more momentous the story felt, the less you knew for sure. The Trump camp exploited this uncertainty to raise funds and attack the few facts that were known. By Monday, April 3, helicopters hovered near the Palm Beach airport as Trump prepared to fly north to New York. One of his sons, Eric, boarded the plane and tweeted a picture of Fox’s aerial live shot. “Watching the plane… from the plane.” The spectacle had come full circle; it felt like 2015 again. And the more I watched, the less I knew about what might happen next.
How might the airtime and app alerts and all our attention have been spent differently? Is such a question even realistic to contemplate? The best person to ask is someone better informed than I am: Someone who just woke up after a two-and-a-half-week snooze and knows nothing of the indictment.