I spent last week ignoring President Trump. Although I am ordinarily a politics junkie, I didn’t read, watch or listen to a single story about anything having to do with our 45th president.
What I missed, by many accounts, was one of the strangest and most unpredictable weeks of news in modern political history. Among other things, there was the resignation of the national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, and an “Oprah Winfrey Show” tape that led to the downfall of the nominee for secretary of labor, Andrew F. Puzder.
It wasn’t my aim to stick my head in the sand. I did not quit the news. Instead, I spent as much time as I normally do online (all my waking hours), but shifted most of my energy to looking for Trump-free zones.
My point: I wanted to see what I could learn about the modern news media by looking at how thoroughly Mr. Trump had subsumed it. In one way, my experiment failed: I could find almost no Trump-free part of the press.
But as the week wore on, I discovered several truths about our digital media ecosystem. Coverage of Mr. Trump may eclipse that of any single human being ever. The reasons have as much to do with him as the way social media amplifies every big story until it swallows the world. And as important as covering the president may be, I began to wonder if we were overdosing on Trump news, to the exclusion of everything else.
President Trump is inescapable.
The new president doesn’t simply dominate national and political news. During my week of attempted Trump abstinence, I noticed something deeper: He has taken up semipermanent residence on every outlet of any kind, political or not. He is no longer just the message. In many cases, he has become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow.
Obviously, just about every corner of the news was a minefield, but it was my intention to keep informed while avoiding Mr. Trump. I still consulted major news sites, but avoided sections that tend to be Trump-soaked, and averted my eyes as I scrolled for non-Trump news. I spent more time on international news sites like the BBC, and searched for subject-specific sites covering topics like science and finance. I consulted social news sites like Digg and Reddit, and occasionally checked Twitter and Facebook, but I often had to furiously scroll past all of the Trump posts. (Some news was unavoidable; when Mr. Flynn resigned, a journalist friend texted me about it.)
Even when I found non-Trump news, though, much of it was interleaved with Trump news, so the overall effect was something like trying to bite into a fruit-and-nut cake without getting any fruit or nuts.
It wasn’t just news. Mr. Trump’s presence looms over much more. There he is off in the wings of “The Bachelor” and even “The Big Bang Theory,” whose creator, Chuck Lorre, has taken to inserting anti-Trump messages in the closing credits. Want to watch an awards show? Say the Grammys or the Golden Globes? Trump Trump Trump. How about sports? Yeah, no. The president’s policies are an animating force in the N.B.A. He was the subtext of the Super Bowl: both the game and the commercials, and maybe even the halftime show.
Where else could I go? Snapchat and Instagram were relatively safe, but the president still popped up. Even Amazon.com suggested I consider Trump toilet paper for my wife’s Valentine’s Day present. (I bought her jewelry.)
Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Trump’s fame may break all records.
All presidents are omnipresent. But it is likely that no living person in history has ever been as famous as Mr. Trump is right now. It’s possible that not even the most famous or infamous people of the recent or distant past — say, Barack Obama, Osama bin Laden, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali or Adolf Hitler — dominated media as thoroughly at their peak as Mr. Trump does now.
I’m hedging because there isn’t data to directly verify this declaration. (Of course, there are no media analytics to measure how many outlets were covering Hitler the day he invaded Poland.) But there is some pretty good circumstantial evidence.
Consider data from mediaQuant, a firm that measures “earned media,” which is all coverage that isn’t paid advertising. To calculate a dollar value of earned media, it first counts every mention of a particular brand or personality in just about any outlet, from blogs to Twitter to the evening news to The New York Times. Then it estimates how much the mentions would cost if someone were to pay for them as advertising.
In January, Mr. Trump broke mediaQuant’s records. In a single month, he received $817 million in coverage, higher than any single person has ever received in the four years that mediaQuant has been analyzing the media, according to Paul Senatori, the company’s chief analytics officer. For much of the past four years, Mr. Obama’s monthly earned media value hovered around $200 million to $500 million. The highest that Hillary Clinton got during the presidential campaign was $430 million, in July.
Credit: Doug Chayka
It’s not just that Mr. Trump’s coverage beats anyone else’s. He is now beating pretty much everyone else put together. Mr. Senatori recently added up the coverage value of 1,000 of the world’s best known figures, excluding Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump. The list includes Mrs. Clinton, who in January got $200 million in coverage, Tom Brady ($38 million), Kim Kardashian ($36 million), and Vladimir V. Putin ($30 million), all the way down to the 1,000th most-mentioned celebrity in mediaQuant’s database, the actress Madeleine Stowe ($1,001).
The coverage those 1,000 people garnered last month totaled $721 million. In other words, Mr. Trump gets about $100 million more in coverage than the next 1,000 famous people put together. And he is on track to match or beat his January record in February, according to Mr. Senatori’s preliminary figures.
How do we know Mr. Trump is more talked about than anyone else in the past? There are now more people on the planet who are more connected than ever before. Facebook estimates that about 3.2 billion people have internet connections. On average, the people of Earth spend about eight hours a day consuming media, according to the marketing research firm Zenith. So almost by definition, anyone who dominates today’s media is going to be read about, talked about and watched by more people than ever before.
“From a media perspective, it’s pretty clear,” Mr. Senatori said. “The sheer volume, and the sheer amount of consumption, and all the new channels that are available today show that, yeah, he’s off the charts.”
But shouldn’t we all be thinking about Trump?
Mr. Trump is a historically unusual president, and thus deserves plenty of coverage. Yet there’s an argument that our tech-fueled modern media ecosystem is amplifying his presence even beyond what’s called for.
On most days, Mr. Trump is 90 percent of the news on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and probably yours, too. But he’s not 90 percent of what’s important in the world. During my break from Trump news, I found rich coverage veins that aren’t getting social play. ISIS is retreating across Iraq and Syria. Brazil seems on the verge of chaos. A large ice shelf in Antarcticais close to full break. Scientists may have discovered a new continentsubmerged under the ocean near Australia.
There’s a reason you aren’t seeing these stories splashed across the news. Unlike old-school media, today’s media works according to social feedback loops. Every story that shows any signs of life on Facebook or Twitter is copied endlessly by every outlet, becoming unavoidable.
Scholars have long predicted that social media might alter how we choose cultural products. In 2006, Duncan Watts, a researcher at Microsoft who studies social networks, and two colleagues published a study arguing that social signals create a kind of “inequality” in how we choose media. The researchers demonstrated this with an online market for music downloads. Half of the people who arrived at Mr. Watts’s music-downloading site were shown just the titles and band name of each song. The other half were also shown a social signal — how many times each song had been downloaded by other users.
Mr. Watts and his colleagues found that adding social signals changed the music people were interested in. Inequality went up: When people could see what others were downloading, popular songs became far more popular, and unpopular songs far less popular. Social signals also created a greater unpredictability of outcomes; when people could see how others had picked songs, the collective ratings of each song were less likely to predict success, and bad songs were more likely to become popular.
I suspect we are seeing something like this effect playing out with Trump news. It’s not that coverage of the new administration is unimportant. It clearly is. But social signals — likes, retweets and more — are amplifying it.
Every new story prompts outrage, which puts the stories higher in your feed, which prompts more coverage, which encourages more talk, and on and on. We saw this effect before Mr. Trump came on the scene — it’s why you know about Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla — but he has accelerated the trend. He is the Harambe of politics, the undisputed king of all media.
The volume isn’t sustainable.
It’s only been a month since Mr. Trump took office, and already the deluge of news has been overwhelming. Everyone — reporters, producers, anchors, protesters, people in the administration and consumers of news — has been amped up to 11.
For now, this might be all right. It’s important to pay attention to the federal government when big things are happening.
But Mr. Trump is likely to be president for at least the next four years. And it’s probably not a good idea for just about all of our news to be focused on a single subject for that long.
In previous media eras, the news was able to find a sensible balance even when huge events were preoccupying the world. Newspapers from World War I and II were filled with stories far afield from the war. Today’s newspapers are also full of non-Trump articles, but many of us aren’t reading newspapers anymore. We’re reading Facebook and watching cable, and there, Mr. Trump is all anyone talks about, to the exclusion of almost all else.
There’s no easy way out of this fix. But as big as Mr. Trump is, he’s not everything — and it’d be nice to find a way for the media ecosystem to recognize that.