To misquote the late comedian Oliver Hardy, "Well, here's another fine mess we've gotten ourselves into."
Yes, we're doing it do ourselves in our instant-gratification, no-depth, hear-what-we-want, no-context, no-filter lives. And the result is we either choose to believe whatever titillating nugget happens to land between our overstimulated ears or we tune it out completely.
The result, at least in the political world, is that stories proliferate like ones that say President Donald Trump wants to buy Greenland or take nuclear bombs to hurricanes or spin the world into madness with his trade policies.
It makes one long for the days when one had to read about what went on in the White House only in hindsight — that the country was building an atom bomb during the latter stages of World War II, that a highly sophisticated plane had been built to spy on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, that tense negotiations were underway to prevent the then-USSR from keeping missiles in Cuba during what became known as the Soviet Missile Crisis, and that secret shuttle diplomacy went on so the country could make entrees to the Soviet Union and China.
Today, if Trump asks a question of a staff member, makes an offhand remark to an aide, or engages in behavior that is any way independent or "the way we've always done it," someone shares it, and the media — both those who hate him in the traditional media and even those who supposedly support him in conservative media — tease it out and don't seem to care where the chips fall.
In previous presidencies, someone may have brought the chief executive a rumor or piece of news that Denmark had some slight bit of interest in selling Greenland. A legitimate discussion may have ensued about motives, uses for the land mass and cost. Whatever the president asked, and he should ask any question that is pertinent, was just part of a roundtable discussion of an idea in its infant stages — perhaps even not one to consider seriously. So, who said what never left the office.
With Trump, so disliked by the left because of his upset win over Hillary Clinton in 2016, a mention in a daily briefing of discussion about Greenland turned into practically a done deal. Suddenly, Trump was considering buying Greenland, and the administration apparently had not consulted Denmark. What arrogance, what effrontery, what a crazy idea.
The same thing likely happened with the hurricane story. The possibility that a potentially devastating hurricane might be nuked to save lives and property has been discussed for nearly 60 years, apparently as far back as a speech by the head of the United States Weather Bureau before the National Press Club in 1961.
It comes up every time a killer hurricane hits the country, and the discussion is not left to ordinary citizens with no knowledge of science. Meteorologists and weather experts put in their two cents worth, too, but nothing ever comes of it. If Trump wondered about it, so what? He should be able to ask such questions of the most learned minds of the country on such a subject and get sound answers. Such a discussion, perhaps asked by presidents in the past, was a private matter — just a way of seeking knowledge on a subject. Today, it becomes a bombshell headline with the desire to make Trump look bad — "Trump wants to drop nuclear bombs on hurricanes."
And the economy? Goodness knows, media outlets had the world spinning off its axis over the weekend. "Friday showed how chaos threatens the world economy" was one headline in this newspaper, but many were much worse. On Monday, though, reports told of renewed trade negotiations with China.
Part of the reason for doom-and-gloom headlines are reasons we've discussed before. The Russia story didn't work for Democrats, and the accusations of racism have rung hollow for them. Trump's top card has been the economy, so if the economy can be portrayed as tottering, he might not have a leg to stand on, the thinking goes. And with the attention span of most voters, if that nugget of a potential economic downturn— my 401k? my pension? — can be planted, it might stick.
Of course, Trump has to share some of the blame for what comes out of his White House. Unfortunately, the president in his business days loved to make news and to surround himself with media. Now, with a staff that apparently loves to leak what went on in the most private of meetings and his own penchant to tweet, nothing stays secret. So the most mundane discussions become tabloid fodder.
But unless we develop the discipline to take everything the media says about Trump and what comes out of the White House with a grain of salt, and unless we thoroughly review an issue in the news rather than lean on what a celebrity says about it or what is glimpsed in someone's Facebook post, we'll remain part of the problem.