The Non-News in review

Does your media experience leave you feeling empty? Are you still hungry after your usual breakfast of three newspapers, a side of Drudge, and a big steaming mug of Morning Joe? (The Washington equivalent of a Denny’s Grand Slam with none of the nutritional value, restraint, or fiber.)  Is it the vapidity of cage match ...

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

Does your media experience leave you feeling empty? Are you still hungry after your usual breakfast of three newspapers, a side of Drudge, and a big steaming mug of Morning Joe? (The Washington equivalent of a Denny's Grand Slam with none of the nutritional value, restraint, or fiber.) 

Does your media experience leave you feeling empty? Are you still hungry after your usual breakfast of three newspapers, a side of Drudge, and a big steaming mug of Morning Joe? (The Washington equivalent of a Denny’s Grand Slam with none of the nutritional value, restraint, or fiber.) 

Is it the vapidity of cage match programming? The emotion-focused, sound-bite oriented Oprah-ization of the interviews? The sense you have that all the really big world-changing stories aren’t being reported? (How could they be if you don’t speak Chinese?)

All these are contributors, of course. But a big piece of it is what is known to insiders as the non-story. These are pieces — often with big headlines, an anchor flown in to do the stand-up in front of the flaming wreckage, a chorus of loudly flapping columnists punditerizing in the background — that look like stories, sound like stories and quack like stories but are not actually stories.

To help you identify these before they actually suck you in (and then begin to eat up valuable grey cells, filling your limited memory with non-facts, non-insights and non-essentials not worth knowing), let me provide you with four examples from this past week of non-stories. Each is an archetype. Once you learn them, try to spot the equivalents or other examples of this all too common, rapidly proliferating form of intellectual pollution.

Type A: The "You’ve Been Played" Non-Story

Of all the non-stories of the past year, one of the most grotesque, bizarre and difficult to understand is the story of LeBron James "big decision." In this story, America held its breath as a seemingly friendly but over-large and uneducated 25 year-old who has never won a single truly big game as a professional basketball player gazed deep into his own navel deciding where he would cash his next obscenely large check. Wait a minute. He’s a professional basketball player? He is a man who plays the one sport that is by acclamation agreed to be vastly more interesting when it is played at the college level because the pros are so self-indulgent, slow and generally loathsome? And we care? We actually played into his hands and helped him hype himself further while what he was doing was offering his young fans a lesson in how their heroes will sell them out for money or glory?

Yes, we did. Yes, we allowed the sheep-like non-journalist flacks for the sports marketers to sell this decision about where this man who is the world’s most overpaid sneaker model would like to spend the next few years bouncing a little orange ball like it was a presidential election. Wait a minute … we bought a story that covered a rich athlete behaving selfishly while he basks in the limelight of a charmed life as though it were news, all the while selling more LeBron T-shirts and posters? I apologize to the non-journalists who cover sports. They’re not the sheep. They’re just cogs in the machine. We’re the sheep. We’re the ones who buy into the whole idea of entertainment "news" as though it were not marketing but news. 

Which brings us to example number two…

Type B:  The "News from Nowhere" Non-Story

Combining the emptiness of "entertainment news" with the shock value of a sunrise is another brand of non-news: the kind that doesn’t creep over even the lowest threshold for newsworthiness because it is so utterly predictable. We’ve had at least two excellent examples this week. In one such story, as it turns out, Mel Gibson is a reprehensible jerk. In another, as it turns out, Lindsay Lohan is a lying, self-deluding, drug-abusing skank. Mel, not content to be remembered as a misogynistic, alcoholic, anti-Semite, goes the extra yard by allegedly beating up his Russian mail-order mistress. And throwing in a few choice racist epithets for good measure. Lindsay, sporting the latest in obscene nail decoration, breaks down in court when she is told that there are actually consequences for repeatedly breaking the law, lying to the police, lying to the courts, lying to herself, and generally flushing what was a promising career down the toilet over which she was just bent while hoovering line after line of mysterious white powder up her button nose.

Anyone who is surprised by either of these developments probably can’t read which means that those who spend time pouring over the stories in People, the Star, Page Six, at TMZ, on Perez Hilton or in the mini-commentaries littering the Twitterverse have no excuse. If you knew it was going to happen before it did … and it has happened before … and it has no impact on the lives of anyone other than people who we made up in our own imaginations to entertain ourselves … then, folks, it’s … not … news.

Type C:  The "Misdirection" Non-Story

Watch what’s in my hand. Watch closely. Watch while I’m doing what’s really meaningful with my other hand.  Magicians call it misdirection. Politicians call it the key to survival. Journalists call it covering the story that they can take pictures of because the really important one is too hard to shoot.

For example … and here I will surprise you by not using the example of covering the McChrystal dust-up while failing to offer even the most rudimentary coverage of the Afghanistan or Iraq wars (because the Pentagon doesn’t want to play nice having been burned by too much public airing of the facts in the past) … take the case of the oil spill in the Gulf.  This dang story gets replayed every day, even when there is no new news. Because the cameras are there. And the pelicans are covered in sludge and that’s very sad. No really. It is very sad. I’m not minimizing that.

But let’s think about it. What’s the bigger environmental or energy or national security story? That the oil is still spilling out at Deepwater Horizon? Or that the United States government is continuing to do nothing serious to fashion either an energy or a climate policy. In fact, in the past week or two it has become painfully clear that for political reasons, the Democrats are going to pretend to float some ideas and then happily let the Republicans kill them and blame the Republicans for their callousness and cynicism. Pot meet kettle. 

Let me rephrase the question: What will cause more environmental damage? The spill or the continuing inaction of the Congress? That’s the real story folks but it’s really hard to make it as photogenic as a baby Pelican drowning in what could have been tomorrow’s WD-40.

Type D:  The "It’s All Make Believe" Non-Story

The fourth type of non-story is a cousin of all the others not just because of its very emptiness but also because it, like them, involves someone using the media for their own purposes. It is Kabuki Theater with a purpose, the best friend of diplomats everywhere. 

In this particular instance the story is the one big hit romantic comedy of the summer movie season. No, I don’t mean Letters to Juliet though it came and went just as fast. And no, I don’t mean Twilight: Eclipse though it did involve the same number of stagey longing glances and hard to believe special effects. And finally, of course, I don’t mean Marmaduke, although frankly that one was a lot more plausible. 

No, of course, I mean "Forbidden Love: The Bibi and Barack Story." I mean, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool liberal when it comes to social issues. I ought to be a sucker for a triumph-against-the-odds love story, especially if it involves enough PC hot button themes to be an HBO mini-series or a Daily Kos staff retreat. I mean you got your Romeo and Juliet element of two clans that can’t get along. You’ve got your triumphing against cultural and ethnic barriers. You’ve got your man-on-man love

And yet somehow, even I, perfect target for this kind of heart-warming slop that I am, didn’t buy it for a minute. Why? Well, there’s the whole this-thing-is-faker-than-a-child-molestation-apology-from-the-Vatican quality to it.  Which is to say there’s this whole election-day-is-coming-and-I-don’t-want-to-piss-off-the-Jews quality to it. Which is to say there’s this whole just-shut-up-and-smile-for-the-camera-because-every-time-we-talk-we-remember-how-much-we-disagree quality to it.

Which means that every second of the White House "press availability" was less plausible than if LeBron claimed he really cared about his fans, less plausible than if Mel Gibson claimed he was going bass fishing with Abe Foxman, less plausible than if Lindsay Lohan claimed … well, anything. Which means the whole dang story was nothing more than a stunt bought and repackaged by a lazy press corps for consumption by an American audience that reads like it eats. (For more on that I direct your attention to: www.thisiswhyyourefat.com. It explains it all. It explains everything really.)

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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