Politics & Media
Nov 13, 2023, 06:28AM

Your Condescension Will Not Save You

The Washington Post and New York Times generously, yet ineptly, tell us what we should care about and how much.

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In the process by which American journalism has been degenerating in recent years, editors have evidently concluded that much more condescension directed at readers will keep people clicking. Possibly, it's a fiendishly clever strategy, though the layoffs continue.

I continue a searing elucidation of American headline syntax, moving on from Experts Say to “Why It Matters” and “Five Takeaways.” "Experts Say" tries to bludgeon you into joining a manufactured consensus. "Why It Matters" tries to wheedle you into paying attention for a minute. "Five Takeaways" wraps up the conclusions of the first two into a convenient, simple, inexpensive, and undemanding widget that you can pick up at the drive-through.

At one point last week, The New York Times was stacking them up on the opinion page. "How We Mourn Matthew Perry Matters, 5 MIN READ," read one puzzling headline. Evidently worth more time was "Here's Why the Final Beatles Song Matters So Much, 6 MIN READ." The "matters" story can only be topped by the "matters so much" story, and by the time they got done reading, Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer must’ve been disappointed that how they mourn Matthew Perry matters, but not so much.

The Washington Post sometimes reads like what my therapist circa 1990 called a mattering map, arranging all persons and phenomena by some quantitative measure of significance. "Hot weather really does pump up home runs. Here’s how, and why it matters," they report. "More cities are requiring captions on public TVs. Here's why that matters," and the like. But "Why It Matters" pieces, especially as they accumulate by their hundreds over the course of the year, tend paradoxically, to flatten everything onto to the same mattering level, which is roughly "not a lot." When everything matters, nothing really matters very much.

I’ve only so much care to invest, and I spent a bunch of it on warm weather and home runs. So then when I hit "What to Know About M1 Tanks and why they matter" or "The eugenic roots of quality-adjusted years, and why they matter," I couldn't really muster the requisite concern. Does eugenics matter more than the effect of warm weather on home runs? Not as far as the Post indicates. And it’s hard to remember what mattered just last year, as in "Elon Musk deleted a Tweet about Paul Pelosi. Here's why that matters." I might not know much about M1 tanks, but at least I know they matter, though not so much. For that, I'll have to go to "Why the D.C. Council's oversight failings matter so much."

This trend got me wondering how many things can matter to me how much. It's driven me not to apoplexy, but apathy, or it has redoubled the apathy I already felt. One difficult moment for me was realizing there's a book titled Why Solange Matters. Also the best-received philosophy book of the last 20 years is On What Matters, by Derek Parfit. Good and evil matter, is what. I begin to conceive the note: "I have come to realize that everything, good and evil and Solange and Pepsi, matters just the same. Goodbye, cruel world."

The "takeaway" trend is something else again. Or is it? In the 1980s, USA Today transformed journalism by turning every story into a barrage of bullet points. The idea was that their readers were busy, bored, simple creatures, who needed every set of facts bottom-lined for them in seconds or else they'd drop their subscription.

But where the "takeaway" really came from was a greasy combination of British fish 'n' chip paper, of the sort served at "the takeaway," and memos aimed at tech bosses. The Times started thinking of themselves as a fast-food franchise, churning out standardized burgers by the bagful. One thing they realized or thought they did: their readers are passive and want every story to come pre-interpreted. NPR even has a show called “The Takeaway.”

"Inside the Army Factory That makes AR-15 Ammunition: 4 Takeaways," the Times offered on Sunday. It’s an odd story to reduce to bullet-points, but perhaps the takeaways involved were caissons or magazines.

It's always going to be four to six takeaways, not because that’s appropriate to any given story, but because that's how these papers conceive the attention spans of their readers. Four Takeaways from the Trump Indictment; Four Takeaways from Trump's court appearance; Four Takeaways from the Elections; Taylor Swift's Eras Tour Movie: Four Takeaways; Four Takeaways from Ron DeSantis' New Book; Five Takeaways from Auction Week; Five Takeaways from Argentina's Election; Five Key Takeaways from the Murdaugh Murders Trial; Six Takeaways from the Republican Debate; Six Takeaways from Political Ads in Iowa; Six Takeaways from Ed Sheeran's 'Let's Get it On' Court Case.' Which is two more than I can handle.

I need it quick, painless and simplistic as fuck even to get my eyes to focus on the screen. "How Abortion Lifted Democrats, and More Takeaways from Tuesday's Elections." I don't think that one makes sense, but then again, unlike the editorial board at the Times, I’m not in the takeaway business.

I'll tell you what; report the story as best you can, and let me try to figure out whether it matters to me. I realize you're the sort of people who think that every story has exactly five points. Let me try to pick them out. Or: just tell them to me, without telling that you're telling me, which isn’t helping me at all. Experts say that takeaways don't matter.

Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell


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