Ezra Klein: Let's Make Media Vegetables More Appealing

The hyperlink, which means that no news story ever really needs to end, seemed revolutionary a decade or so ago but is almost taken for granted today.

Now comes Ezra Klein and his new Vox.com site to bring us “explanatory journalism,” an effort to help people know more about topics which they may not initially understand. In this promotional clip published yesterday, Klein describes it as an effort to get people to eat their media vegetables or, perhaps, to stop thinking of them as vegetables at all.

While the idea of “explanatory journalism” is appealing, the process of contextualizing stories with additional information is itself an opportunity to make judgments about what information is worth knowing. A friend of my once simplified it this way, “He who frames the debate, wins the debate.”

If you’ve read Klein in the past you’re probably already aware that his project has always been one of presenting his work not as the conclusion of one clever, twenty-something news junkie but as an offer of unassailable facts for which he is just a conduit. His model is the killer chart that simplifies the issue, but always in a way that makes his side of the debate the right side. The default headline for an Ezra Klein piece is: One chart that explains why progressives are right about X.

Sometimes Klein pulls it off. There’s a reason he’s gained the influence he has. But often you can find the bit of information or argument he seems to have overlooked, sometimes you even find it in one of his own prior columns. Was Obamacare enrollment just like Medicare part D? No, not really. In fact there’s a a nifty chart showing it’s not. But Klein kept making that comparison because it made Obamacare look like less of a disaster.

So the first problem with this effort is that it’s not clear how having a potentially endless “explainer” is going to be any less about Ezra Klein winning an argument for progressives than having a 1200 word explainer at the Post. I’m a bit worried that what is novel about Vox may turn out to be a kind of backstory spin as much as it is an explanation.

The second problem I see with this effort is far more fundamental. Klein says he wants people to eat their vegetables. Like a lot of people in this business, I’m sympathetic to the idea that there are more important things happening in the world than what makes headlines in check-stand tabloids. But I’m not optimistic that’s a problem which can be solved by technology. Here’s why.

There’s an old axiom in news: If it bleeds, it leads. But in fact, our own innate repulsion to people being hurt or killed is limited in practice by language, culture, time and distance. That’s human nature because, to a great degree, our interest in this kind of news is really a function of a more basic interest in self-preservation. So while it’s true that if it bleeds, it leads, it’s also true that if it bleeds near us that’s more important than if it’s a thousand miles away. That’s why LA’s nightly news doesn’t carry stories about shootings in Miami, Florida and vice versa. The further you get from someone’s neighborhood, the bigger and bloodier the disruption has to be to make the local paper or newscast.

The self-preservation instinct is really just one channel, one bit of mental velcro, to which information can stick. There are other channels in the human brain, such as the ones that respond to beauty or humor or a good story, which are just as powerful. Indeed, in the absence of any immediate physical threat, they are often more powerful (hence the check-stand tabloids). A lot of people fill their days listening to Sports Talk Radio and Celebrity Gossip and that’s never, ever going to stop. People will always be interested in these sugary stories because they have an innate taste for them, just as babies don’t have to be trained to like sweets.

All news is ultimately about activating these basic human impulses that have been with us since proto-humans were telling stories around campfires. Maybe those stories were about a battle (if it bleeds, it leads), maybe they were a joke about someone behaving stupidly or a tale of acting bravely which helped clarify the pecking order (entertainment news, politics) or about a competition between adults or rival clans (sports news). Whatever the case, technology is not capable of adding to or subtracting from the list of things that interest human beings. And that insures that news about a distant conflict is always going to sound like “vegetables” to people who are far away, speak a different language and have the latest Bowl game or installment of The Voice on TV.

Some things never really change, but I suppose if Vox can make even a fractional improvement in people’s interest level without becoming a dishonest backstory spin site it will do just fine.

Correction: I originally opened with a reference to Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers. Turns out my memory is faulty. The line “Would you like to know more?” only appears in the film, not in the novel. I removed the paragraph.

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