It’s a given that the next three years — or ten or twenty — will bring much stress to anyone who enjoys objective reality. The stink of Trump has proved thicker and more toxic than we expected. Republicans have stopped pretending democracy holds their interest, and they’re actively working to bring it down.
So if you’re feeling like oh shit you have to save the damn country yet again, you’re not alone. And yes, it’s stressful.
At the same time, there are lots of companies making lots of money from our stress — either by relieving it or exacerbating it.
Media companies do both. They have a vested interest in keeping our psyches on a slow boil. The stories they tell get us stressed out, worked up, and angry as hell. At which point they sell us the very products and services we need to calm us down — anything from gym memberships to prescription drugs, to Jack Daniels, to Bacon Whoppers with cheese.
Yes, we want to follow the news, but can we do it less stressfully? As a person who consumes probably more than my share of facts and opinion, I’ve adopted some personal guidelines for wading through the muck while maintaining mental equilibrium. Subjective as they are — and far from comprehensive — I thought I might nonetheless share a few. Please forgive me if I preach to the choir:
Cut down on MSNBC and CNN
In the interest of keeping our stress levels as high as possible, both MSNBC and CNN have grown highly adept at ginning up controversy. They want to keep us terrified of anything they can call “breaking news,” which they then parse over and over, using the same pundits over and over, until we've heard every nuance a dozen times and learned nothing at all new.
By then we're drooling for the next piece of breaking news. Which they will happily provide. There is never a shortage of Republican atrocities to report.
It’s all entertaining, up to a point. But it’s also a sort of drug. Prolonged use can elevate your blood pressure, and I suggest cutting back on your dosage. Not that we have to go cold turkey, but an hour or two a day is surely sufficient. More is almost masochistic.
I feel I can generally count on Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell to give me what’s important without insulting my intelligence. All the other hosts feel a bit too slickly marketed to fully trust. Especially since their shows are too often infested with Never Trumpers, who pop up as pundits with depressing regularity. These former Republican apparatchiks have done extremely well rebranding themselves as defenders of democracy, after having spent most of their careers actively and effectively undermining it. You’ll never see Bill Kristol, David Frum, Charlie Sykes, or Rick Wilson on either Rachel or Lawrence.
Let’s never lose sight of the fact that MSNBC is owned by Comcast, CNN by Warner, which is in turn owned by AT&T. These are for-profit enterprises with no natural inclination toward social change. And they think much more about their products than your sanity.
It isn’t hard to find other sources — blogs, podcasts, etc. — that can keep our political biases well fed, while sparing us the insidious commercialism.
Ignore those “Democrats-in-disarray” stories
I won’t subject you to yet another rant about both-siderism, but we should be alert to one of its more persistent forms. The Democrats-in-disarray story is a staple of both the New York Times and the Washington Post, though there are plenty of other practitioners. It tends to coincide with the latest Republican outrage, not so much as a reaction to it, but as a change of subject from it. The story is inevitably that Democrats are divided, that they can’t agree on anything, that their squabbling leaves them powerless against Republican machinations.
When a headline in NYT reads “Showdown Over Omar’s Comments Exposes Sharp Divisions Among Democrats,” you can count on a story that plays up the acrimony while winking at the otherness of Ilhan Omar. As with most stories about the so-called “Squad” — Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, etc. — there are unfortunate echoes of the GOP’s racist narrative: that “these people” are out to destroy our way of life.
This is rarely overt — at least not in the Times or the Post — but when you dig for the substance of stories like this, you realize it's about little more than members of Congress disagreeing, which is more or less what they’re paid to do. But a difference of opinion is never as exciting as a “sharp division,” so the more breathless headline will always win out.
Remember that you’re not in the room
“The Room Where it Happened” is one of the more provocative songs from Hamilton. The phrase itself has become a cliché, a clever shorthand for the back-room deal where the real movers and shakers get their business done. Listen again next time you get agitated about Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and remember — because the media won’t remind you — that the real conversations about things like the filibuster and reconciliation are going on behind closed doors.
The horse trading that actually matters happens in places like Chuck Schumer’s office, and we’re not invited. This is not necessarily a good thing — more transparency is probably desirable — but it is the reality. It doesn’t mean the filibuster’s going away any time soon, it just means we have no idea what’s going on. And neither does the media.
For all the Manchin-Sinema posturing, it helps to remember that it is indeed posturing. The pressure on both of them, coming from all sides, is huge, and nothing they say today has any bearing on what they’ll say tomorrow. We’d be foolish to take their rhetoric at face value. The media, of course, wants us to think otherwise.
Tune up your bullshit detector
Everybody has a built-in bullshit detector. Some are better than others. Some are underused. Some can be easily bypassed by propagandists. But a good bullshit detector allows information to flow freely into our brains, and applies filters that serve to process that information and make sense of it. Those filters let us separate out the signal from the noise, the facts from the opinions, the sober from the bombastic, the relevant from the extraneous.
With all the crap that comes at us from so many media these days, we need to keep those detectors well-tuned and fully operational. We need to understand when we’re being lied to, misled, distracted, gaslit, or otherwise bullshat. We need to protect ourselves, not just from bad information, but also from the stress that accompanies it.
Above all, we need to remember that for most news media, our stress is their business model.