There’s a change that’s come over me in the last ten months, and it’s fairly subtle: I’ve become a raving lunatic. Ten months ago I was a sensitive, compassionate guy who ate dinner while making eye contact with his wife, and basically had a decent grasp on reality. Then I started watching the news.
Ten months later — and just the other night I was making witty, intelligent conversation with my wife when I started developing signs of a condition that I call “the Election Shakes.” It’s a biological reaction to the overwhelming fear that at some point since the last time I checked, Donald Trump might have said something stupid. It can be any news, not just Trump. The fear is the same: I might have missed something. I might be missing something right now. That’s what hit me the other night. At some point maybe twenty minutes later I looked up and realized that conversation had trailed off, probably right around the time I’d made a mad grab for my smartphone to check Politico, and that I’d likely spent the last twenty minutes muttering to myself about the newest Rasmussen poll, or about a senate race in a state I’d never been to. When I came to and realized what I’d done, my wife was already muttering something like, “Maybe you should worry about your own ‘unfavorables’ with white women . . .”
You know who’s fault this is? It’s Lester Holt’s.
You see, I used to come home every night, have dinner, curl up with a book, and then fall asleep — blissfully unaware of all the stupidity in the world. The only times I watched TV, Steph Curry and Lebron James were involved. The only “debates” I cared about were about rebounds, or Pete Carroll’s playcalling, or whether Kevin Love’s teammates actually invited him to the championship parade.
But then came the presidential primaries. And because I wanted to do my civic duty of staying informed — and also because I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned train wreck, followed by an explosion, followed by a nuclear meltdown, followed by a Cleveland Browns game — I started watching the NBC national news every night. And once I started watching the dapper and unflappable Lester Holt every evening, I found it hard to stop.
I knew the risks. I knew that to hook viewers, the networks have been known to perhaps, very slightly — sensationalize things. Okay, so you might as well knock back a case of Red Bull and snort enough cocaine to get Rick James interested as tune into the nightly news. Most news shows — unless you’re watching PBS or something, which is sort of like eating bran flakes when you could be snorting cocaine — should basically all go by the same name as that old show on FOX: “Fear Factor.” That was the show on which people were dared to eat live millipedes, or lie in bathtubs full of scorpions. But “Fear Factor” would be a good name for the news. And while yes it’s true that the other evening I refused to go outside after dark to take the trash out because there could be scary clowns in the neighborhood, what can I say? It’s hard to stop watching. The news is exciting. They don’t hold back. It’s all war metaphors and hyperbole. Everything’s a “meltdown” or a “campaign,” or “wreaking havoc.” It’s all drama, high stakes. It’s hard to turn away.
And during the primaries, it was even better. Donald Trump bragged about the size of his “polls,” Marco Rubio repeated the same line over and over like he was in Milli Vanilli , and John Kasich made the, “Who the f**k are these idiots?” face every time anyone opened their mouths.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the evening news, here are the main components of your average broadcast.
The Lead: They always start with the day’s biggest story, which is never something like,”wave of racial harmony overtakes American cities.” No. It’s almost always about something truly horrific and ghastly, like a major terrorist attack happening inside a nursery school that is inside a church that is on a pony farm owned by armless orphans — all reported with the kind of appreciation for nuance and subtlety that makes you want to start stocking up on canned goods and ammunition.
The Second Biggest Story: This is also typically about someone getting shot, or blown up, or eaten by terrorists. This is usually when I start drinking.
Politics: Expect stories such as, “Putin decides to revoke his endorsement because Trump allegedly groped him on an airplane.” Then a leaked tape of Trump saying, “What can I do? When I see a beautiful dictator, it’s like a magnet; sometimes I just start kissing him on the lips. Maybe Paul Ryan’s just jealous? I don’t know.”
Sometimes while watching the news, I take out my passport and gaze at it fondly.
The Household Scare: If a quick look at American politics doesn’t have you halfway out the door, headed for the Canadian border, here’s the part where they really start boring holes into your skull and draining the sanity out. Now you learn that a familiar household item, such as your fabric softener, or your couch cushions, or possibly the oxygen in your house, could be plotting to kill you.
The Ridiculous Health Story: Here’s the part where they present some new health study that sounds like it was conducted by teenage researchers who just learned about things like “science”: “New study shows that eating whole wheels of cheese may lead to constipation.”
Now, if it stopped there — if the only news I was consuming was once a night, for thirty minutes (which is to say, ten minutes of news and twenty minutes of Viagra commercials) — I’d probably still be able to mimic a normal human being. But, oh, that’s not where I stopped. Not by a long-shot. The other day when I decided to pull over on my commute home from work to because I just had to check The Washington Post on my phone because I was starting to get the shakes, I realized something: I’ve become a full-blown news junkie.
Here a few signs of what has happened to me:
–For one thing, I’ve stopped watching sports. I’ve barely watched any football. There are stories going around right now (which I of course know about, because I’m a news junkie) that the NFL is really, really worried because ratings are way down and they’re concerned about long-term viewership. But that’s ridiculous. Everyone’s getting their fill of exciting and possibly brain-impaired competition from our presidential candidates. Yesterday instead of cuing up my usual NFL podcast on the way home from work, I thought, “Nah, that’s boring,” and pulled up a political podcast instead (“Keepin’ It 1600”). Just in case, you know, there was some new angle on anything, anywhere. But we’ll be back after November 8th. Don’t worry, Rog.
–Then there’s the fact that I’m so desperate to know who’s going to win the election that I’ve become obsessed with getting the real story. I’m haunted by the notion that I’m getting biased coverage, so I’ve dealt with that like a true obsessive: by checking all news sites. Sure, I check Politico, but I also peruse Breitbart (Breitbart!) to keep in touch with the latest perfectly reasonable speculation from the Alt Right — such as Hillary Clinton’s alien love child who has Parkinson’s, wasn’t born in the US, and once groped O.J. Simpson on an airplane. Sometimes I not only check what local papers are saying in swing states, but I check the comments sections to see how voters are reacting. Comments sections! See? I’m insane.
–I’m obsessed with polls. I check RealClearPolitics.com constantly. The other day I believe I said something to my wife such as, “That new lawnmower we got is about as reliable as the LA Times/USC poll.”*
And we laughed and laughed. Because we both knew what that was.
*(A national poll that always shows Donald Trump winning. As though you care.)
–I’m also obsessed, like a lot of political junkies, with Fivethirtyeight.com’s electoral map. Quiz me on it right now. Go ahead. Try! The other day I was walking through the high school where I work. On the wall in the atrium, I saw a giant poster of Fivethirtyeight’s election map and it was WRONG! I turned to the nearest person, who was, I believe, some four-foot tall seventh grader, and started ranting about how Pennsylvania really hadn’t been purple for months because of the Philadelphia suburbs. Right around the time the kid was running in the opposite direction, I realized that this was a giant map showing the location of US colleges. Pennsylvania was purple because — well, who knows? It was just purple. But I have conversations with my wife all the time that begin, “Can you believe that Utah might go blue for the first time since Johnson?” I love the map. I might as well start wearing a suit and change my name to Josh Lyman.
–If I go too long without checking the Washington Post or the New York Times, I start to get the shakes.
–I need new stories to break. Finding breaking news is like probably a lot like what winning at gambling feels like. Finding some crazy new story about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is like finding $100 in your pants pocket. I don’t know why it’s so addictive. I just know that I need more of it.
–When I talk politics with anyone, I try to suss out not only who they’re voting for, but who their friends are voting for. Without, you know, being rude. I consider this “taking my own personal polls.”
Me: “Sounds like white, college educated women are turning on Trump.”
My Wife: “Stop interrogating our guests.”
–I can name more journalists, commentators, and politicians than I can NBA and NFL players. I watch so much Meet the Press and NBC news that I’ve developed whole long lists of favorite media prognosticators. Here are some of my favorites: Joy-Ann Reid, David Brooks, Katy Tur, Robert Costa, Andrew Sullivan, Chuck Todd, and Kelly Ann Conway (just because I like to imagine her curling up with a bottle of scotch right after the interview).
–I speculate about who everyone I know is voting for.
–Sometimes I pretend I’m having political discussions with my students, but I’m secretly polling them to see who they think won the debate.
–I’ve started checking Twitter. ‘Nuff said.
Now, let’s get this election over with, so I can return to being a normal human being. Unless the post-election coverage is interesting.