On Reading the Paper and Watching MSNBC (Or Perhaps Not)
I will confess to having spent (squandered?) way too much time following the race between Obama and Clinton—more hours than I prefer to count. I’m not even talking about the substance of it all, such as the merits of Obama’s healthcare plan as compared to Clinton’s. I mean the race itself: the endless discussions about the predilections of super-delegates; how voters were expected to break in certain states; what Bill Clinton had said or not said on a particular day. And I continued to closely follow the race long after the mathematicians and pundits assured me that Obama had it wrapped up. (Of course, the pundits keep talking too, but that’s a different issue.)
The whole endeavor has brought to mind a 1998 article called Folding the Times that George W. S. Trow published in the New Yorker. Usually I don’t find personal histories nearly as interesting as their authors seem to, but this one—about the relationship Trow’s father taught him to have with the newspaper—contained a lesson that has stuck with me, even though I seem unable to follow it. But I pass on Trow’s advice nonetheless, in preparation for the general election. (Because the article is almost 10 years old, some of its references are dated. You’ll still get the point.)
I read every work in the paper about Algeria, Ukraine, and Belarus; these are the underreported zones. You should get a sense of what is underreported and what is overreported. Overreported is Newt Gingrich. One tenth of one percent of what has been written about Newt would have done you just fine. You also need to read every word about Shanghai, Chinese billionaires, and the Russian mafia. Stories are boiling (or seem to be boiling) here. If you have a personal reason to take an interest in a Baby Bell reaching out to yet another media, sure, read it, but be aware that the deal will ravel or unravel, happen or not happen, be consummated or not consummated, be important or not important, and that you will just have read ten thousand words.
I read nothing about the Equal Rights Amendment during the time it was in the news, for instance. Either it was going to get to be an amendment or it wasn’t. There are a lot of stories like that: years in the making; infinite detail; you have no say in the outcome; it will happen or it won’t.
Do yourself a favor. Just wait to see if Al Gore is nominated. Wake up the day after the next Democratic convention and ask a friend, “Did Gore make it?” My guess is that he will have made it. Take the fifty-thousand word investment you were prepared to make on Gore’s election prospects and follow another story.
My goal? To follow Trow (in moderation) as the media shifts its coverage from Obama-Clinton to Obama-McCain.