Attention spans and politics
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) It’s no secret that attention spans are getting shorter. Arguably, that’s the fault of the Internet providing nearly instant response times, and keeping text content small while graphic and video content dominate on most sites. When I first started writing analysis and opinion pieces many years ago, the average column was about 1500 words and contained no visual content other than a headshot at the top, over the byline. Today, most of my editors are looking for columns of half that length, with 800 words the standard maximum.
I’ve had editors argue that the pay for shorter columns ought therefore to be about half of what they’d pay for twice the number of words. Truly professional editors, editors who started out as writers, see the fallacy in that argument. Winston Churchill, when he was earning his living as a political writer after he withdrew from political life, was once asked to write a specific piece of critical analysis for the London Times on short notice. He told the editor that he could get them 4000 words by the next day’s deadline. The editor responded that he would be happy with 2000 words, to which Churchill replied that he didn’t have enough time to write it that short. Churchill was acutely aware that cramming that much insight into a smaller piece was a far more difficult challenge than covering the same territory with enough room to express himself freely; condensing his thoughts and maintaining the same quality of analysis was a much tougher proposition.
If a good writer takes a certain number of words to make and justify a point and then edits his
own writing, eliminating any UEUE, any further cutting by an editor necessarily takes something away from the point and its supporting argument. And it’s safe to say that Churchill, the winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature, was a good writer. Ideally, in commentary and analysis in periodicals, a writer will produce a piece that expresses a single main point and argue for it in the minimum number of words she or he feels covers the idea thoroughly. If the editorial constraints are too strict, the piece will be too short, and will spark rebuttals from readers who wish to dispute the points raised but insufficiently supported. If the piece is too long for a daily, it should perhaps be submitted to a weekly, or, if still too long, a monthly. If no periodical can accommodate its length, clearly the writer should be thinking in terms of a book.
When I first started this site, I used to post 800 word pieces, sometimes with a graphic or two. That was because I had developed the habit of writing pieces on opinion pages of daily print media, for whom 800 words had become the standard. But over the years, I have discovered that 1300 to 1700 words is a far more comfortable size with which to get my point across. And now I add 5 or 6 graphics to each post because my research shows that, on the ‘net, people who are just clicking through, are put off by seeing blocks of text that aren’t broken up by visual content, and are likely to “bounce” as SEO experts express it.
Having said all that, what is revolutionary about the current state of political reporting and commentary is that even the briefest analysis is beyond the attention span of the majority of people who aren’t either in politics, or in the media, or simply obsessed with the current US presidential election. A little over a year ago, the alt. right, after endorsing Donald Trump, claimed that they would win this election by memes. And of course the Trump campaign has taken on board as their CEO, the former head of alt. right news source, Breitbart, Stephen Bannon. And since Bannon took over, the campaign’s reliance on clickbait, memes, prepared soundbites, provocative tweets, and a refusal to take questions or engage in dialogue at press “conferences”, has contributed to Trump’s resurgence in the polls.
Today, even the 800-word standard is too much for the demographic that gravitates to Trump. It is too much for them actually to read and understand facts in news reporting; it is completely beyond their grasp to understand thoughtful analysis. Memes are their preferred bite-sized nuggets of wisdom. For that demographic, memes are ideal. They say something briefly; they usually say it as though their opinion is an established fact; and the more offensive and confrontational they are, the more they are shared and circulated. Memes can’t be argued against because the person who posts them doesn’t necessarily take responsibility for them, and, like Trump, when called on it, they can claim to have been joking.
The left doesn’t seem to be restricted to the same extent as the right is to those tiny thoughts expressed in photo shopped visuals and often misspelled one and two syllable words; the right wing, however, seems to employ them to the exclusion of more thorough analysis. Certainly, the left employs memes and tweets, but there is almost no thoughtful analysis of politics from a right wing viewpoint available online. In print, there is the Wall Street Journal, but even that bastion of conservative journalism has abandoned Trump and the alt. right. Right leaning blogs and news outlets tend to be hyperbolic in their condemnation and ad hominem attacks on the left; they tend to state opinions as fact, they support the wildest conspiracy theories without any critical analysis. In short, The National Enquirer is the standard of journalism to which they seem to aspire.
There used to be intelligent if misguided think pieces in sensible right wing periodicals. Besides the WSJ, there was the National Review and other conservative outlets. The right wing, however, has moved so far into fascist territory that even William Buckley’s pseudo-intellectual conservative platform finds itself uncomfortably close to the centre.
And this is the new face of journalism. On one side you have tweets, memes, soundbites, slogans, catchphrases, and low rent sewer attack journalism. This is the Trump universe. There is not one single responsible and professional news outlet, in print, in broadcast, or in electronic format that supports Trump unreservedly. Even the worst excuse for television news, Fox News, can’t bring themselves to get fully behind their own creature; Trump has made the right wing echo chamber hesitate before fully committing to his political psychosis.
The Trump ascendancy has destroyed civil political discourse, it has eliminated human decency in political campaigning, and perhaps worst of all, it has reduced journalism to the lowest ebb in its venerable and proud history. What Trump will do to international relations and world politics in the unthinkable event of his election is too horrible to contemplate rationally.
 UEUE is a word I invented to mean “extraneous and unnecessary additions to that which is essential”. Its genesis is the spelling of the word “queue”, in which the letters UEUE add nothing that isn’t said simply by “Q”.