Karma Chameleons

Like movies and professional sports, the mega-story is a social glue. But it can also be short-lived.

As I write this column, two magazines, Newsweek and Time, sit at my elbow. Each is the current issue, dated April 23. Each devotes its cover and many inside pages to a story that, as it went to press, was seemingly the only thing that mattered in America, the fall of Don Imus. Each intelligently pores over that story, discovering Several Larger Truths about our culture.

And each feels pointless, expired, like an ancient scroll found in a cave. Try transporting yourself back to the time of Imus. Hard, isn't it? It was just five or six days ago, but it might as well be five months.

This Newsweek issue was hitting the stands the morning that the Blacksburg massacre happened. If you went to the magazine's Web site that day, you would have seen the Imus cover reduced to a postage stamp in an upper corner of the main page. That same day on The Huffington Post, Nora Ephron mocked the idea that anyone could still have anything to say about Imus (a clever frame for what she was doing in the piece: saying a few things about Imus). Nothing stinks like old news.

There is a tremendous poignancy to the news business right now. And I'm not talking about the trade's worries about money and declining audience, which are real if a bit overblown. I'm talking about the media's earnest, ongoing effort to get all of us to care simultaneously about the same thing—these blockbuster stories that come and go so quickly, their fleetingness undermining their claim to have been blockbusters in the first place.

Don't get me wrong. We really do care about these stories for a few days, sometimes a week. Then one morning you wake up to find that the most urgent topic on the planet (or at least in this intensely self-absorbed corner of it), the five-alarm narrative that everyone from Bush to Obama to Rosie was weighing in on, has vanished from the collective consciousness. Did it really happen?

In the '90s, they called them "feeding frenzies," a phrase that cast journalists as predatory instigators, ruthless sharks. But real sharks are free agents in a way that journalists are not. To rack up clicks, sell issues, pull good ratings, newspeople have to please their client, which is the audience. Perhaps a better metaphor is an ant colony: The public is the great throbbing queen who gives the worker ants of the media their marching orders, and they bring back what she requires.

So why do we require these stories? On the most basic level, because they shock and/or titillate us. In a deeper way, they give us a sense of mass connection that is missing from our fragmented culture. Consumers spend more and more of their media time in demographic ghettos defined by ideology, sensibility, and other sources of tribal identity. Like movies and professional sports, the mega-story, whose content can range from Abu Ghraib to Anna Nicole, is social glue. This is what remains of togetherness.

It's an intense experience, but like most kinds of intensity, short-lived. The shelf life of most such stories mirrors the way we now consume news—the nervous grazing, the flitting among headlines, links, YouTube quickies.

The other reason that they end so abruptly is that our engagement with them is often synthetic to begin with. Three weeks ago, Don Imus didn't figure at all in most people's lives. According to Newsweek, his radio show had 2.25 million-plus "unique" weekly listeners, which is less than the population of Minneapolis-St. Paul. He mattered more than that, briefly, because his transgression tapped into a few larger issues that society happened to be working on. The story itself is just an instrument, a disposable tool. Use it quickly and move on.

The exception to this rule is the rare story that is so large on its own terms, it obliterates all other story lines—9/11 and Hurricane Katrina being the most prominent recent examples. Maybe the Virginia Tech massacre, an authentic national horror, is one of those stories. Or maybe, even as you read this, the next big thing has already come along.