For those of you who engage in the tradition of making resolutions for the New Year each January, I have a relatively easy and productive one to suggest for your list: make better use of your time. Speaking from the far side of the half-century marker, I can assure you that it is your most precious commodity. And if, like me, you are an avid follower of politics and governmental news, a prime target for cutting the fat out of your schedule would be to better regulate how much cable news you take in each week. 2014 was a banner year for the talking heads of the small screen to wind up the nation’s gears over “breaking news” stories which could have better remained unbroken for the most part.
By reviewing this list you may learn to spot some of the early warning signs of non-stories that devour the news cycle. So, in reverse order of volumetric time out of your life which you shall never recover, here are the biggest sinkholes of media fixation this year. Try to estimate how many hours you spent watching, listening and reading about each of them.
Number 5: What a Steaming Pile of Shirt
Our first contender for this year’s awards barely made it under the wire in time for the list. In November, the European Space Agency, in cooperation with a powerhouse cabal of eggheads from around the globe, achieved what would normally only be seen in comic books or on reruns of The Big Bang Theory. They landed a space probe on a comet millions of miles from the Earth and traveling faster than Chuck Schumer when he sees a reporter’s camera crew near the steps of the Senate. It was an historic event which reinvigorated our belief in the technological wonders that mankind can achieve when we put our minds to it and earned well-deserved, global media coverage… which lasted approximately five minutes.
The media’s joyful delivery of news covering a legitimate milestone in human history was completely derailed when a couple of feminists noticed that one of the scientists in the control center was wearing a shirt decorated with some attractive, fantasy cartoon women. What should have been the crowning moment of Dr. Matt Taylor’s career immediately devolved into a debate over why he hated women in the STEM disciplines and wanted to make them feel so unwelcome in the space industry. A feud erupted between the Left and the Right, with esteemed figures as far up the food chain as Hizoner the Lord High Mayor of London weighing in on the subject. The scent of catnip was in the air and the media couldn’t resist, going on a weeks-long tirade about the generally sad state of the male members of the species, even in the ivory covered halls of our greatest educational institutions.
Somewhere, in the basement of his mum’s garden level apartment, Matt Taylor stares forlornly at his 1976 Farrah Fawcett bathing suit poster and dreams of what might have been.
Number 4: The Greatly Exaggerated Death of Roger Goodell’s Career
A special meta-award for meta-time wasting may be in order for the Narrative Journalism Media Complex in the wake of their breathless coverage of violence in the NFL. The crux of the story was that a few of the more than 2,000 men in the starting lineups of the league’s 32 franchises had allegedly committed acts of violence against women and or family members. The fact that the actual rate of such offenses was far below the national average wasn’t about to slow down our intrepid cable news hounds. The NFL had a violence problem, and whatever league commissioner Roger Goodell did about it wasn’t going to be enough. A scalp had to be taken and cable news was reporting for duty.
The media has gotten so used to demonstrating their awesome power to force politicians to resign at the first hinted report of a scandal that they collectively assumed Goodell would be similarly cowed. They even started countdown clocks marking the time until Goodell said his tearful goodbyes and headed for the exit. What they failed to realize is that the Commish isn’t answerable to either a national referendum by voters or the clucking tongues of cable news spokesmodels. His only responsibility is to the true fans of the sport and to the collective owners and coaches of the teams. His job is to make sure that the money keeps flowing and that the fans keep tuning in. Business is still good for the NFL and their ratings are through the roof, much to the frustration of the CNN anchor desk.
Oh, by the way… Roger Goodell is still the commissioner of the NFL as of this writing.
Number 3: A Bridgegate Too Far
In a story which actually began in 2013, but ran most of the way through this year, the Garden State gave what appeared to be the biggest, sweetest present to the news media they had seen since Mark Sanford went for a stroll on the Appalachian Trail. The news of the Fort Lee lane closure on the George Washington Bridge hit cable news talkers — in particular the late night MSNBC lineup of Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow — like a case of Mountain Dew Code Red with matching 5 Hour Energy Drink chasers on their breakfast table. This was, quite simply, the best story in the world and they weren’t about to let anyone forget it. Not only was Governor Chris Christie a Republican (and a frighteningly popular one in a blue state at that), but he was also a contender for the presidency. Bringing him down would be a case of knocking out two hugely fat birds with one stone.
It doesn’t matter that, in the end, the very Democrats trying to gain the most advantage from this story were forced to admit that Christie wasn’t involved. You can’t let a little thing like that interrupt a good media narrative. They kept yammering on about it for the entire year, and even after every investigation cleared Christie they launched into a new investigation of the investigation. This story is clearly harder to quit than a four bag a day heroin jag. In fact, if they ever let Candy Crowley moderate another GOP presidential debate it will probably be the subject of her first question. And if you sat there through all the coverage in 2014, at least you’ll be up to speed on it.
Unless you’re on the George Washington Bridge, that is, because the traffic generally stinks there no matter who is in the governor’s mansion.
Number 2: Hillary. Will She or Won’t She? Only Her Hairdresser and Everyone Else in the World Knows For Sure.
There was not a single week in all of 2014 when the media didn’t set aside their wild speculation about the outcome of the midterm elections to speculate even more wildly about the Democrat nominee for another election still more than two years away. Hillary Clinton was followed by the DC media almost as obsessively as David Letterman was tracked by that deranged woman from Illinois. And while Letterman’s stalker eventually took her own life, the media wasn’t about to cut any such slack to us.
Hillary’s every utterance was dissected and framed in the context of whether or not she would be making a run for the White House. Her book, which otherwise might have sold as well as the one about the new theory regarding faulty rivets in the Titanic, flew off the shelves, with almost all of the copies being purchased by reporters. And all of this journalistic fervor was being expended on a woman who has spent essentially her entire adult life — from the first, awful occasion when she went back to Bill Clinton’s dorm room for the night until she quit her runner-up prize job at the State Department — preparing to run for the presidency.
And if, by some miracle, she doesn’t run… guess what? Somebody else will and they’ll probably be just as bad.
Number 1: De Plane! De Plane!
I have the greatest sympathy possible for the families and friends of the lost souls on Malaysia Airlines Fight 17, but this story quickly devolved into what may have been the nadir of news coverage for CNN, and to a lesser degree the rest of the alphabet networks. Admittedly, the curious circumstances surrounding the sudden disappearance of the giant jet from our radar screens made for a compelling mystery. But by the third or fourth day it should have been obvious that roughly 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water and the plane had almost certainly hit some of it.
But the networks couldn’t let it go. For weeks and then months we were treated to one “analysis” after another, speculating on everything from a terrorist heist to the possibility that the airliner was about to return, piloted by Jack Shephard and Kate in a real-life episode of Lost. We learned the inner buoyancy secrets of underwater drones and were treated to three dimensional CGI tours of the floor of the ocean in places no self-respecting killer whale would be caught dead. One poor schmuck from CNN was forced to move into a LINK flight simulator and live there until the equipment was eventually condemned for excessive bodily fluids and irremovable odors. There was simply nothing else worth covering on the entire planet. And then, after months of saturation, the story was simply gone.
The plane crashed. It was sad, but that’s what happened.
There you have it. The best of the worst for 2014 in terms of the endless news cycle wasting your time. But with this list as a guide, next year you will be able to spot the warning signs and spare yourself another season of mind numbing horror. So when you see a story like this begin to catch fire on CNN, turn off your television. Go outside. Walk the dog. Repair that broken handrail on the porch. Start sketching out the details of that cure for HIV that you’ve had kicking around in the back of your mind.
Just do something else. Your life will be better for it this time next year.