“After nearly three years of investigation,” Peter Baker wrote on the front of Saturday’s New York Times, “after hundreds of interviews and thousands upon thousands of pages of documents, after scores of indictments”—here the text began to flow around an inset reading NEWS ANALYSIS—”and court hearings and guilty pleas, after endless hours of cable-television and dinner-table speculation, the moment of reckoning has arrived.”
The truth was the opposite, of course. Baker was writing in the complete and total absence of any reckoning. A banner reading “MUELLER SUBMITS TRUMP INQUIRY FINDINGS” spanned the entire front page, but there was nothing to put below it; those five words were the sum of what anyone knew or could know. The Mueller report existed, but beyond that there was no NEWS and no object of ANALYSIS. There was just the New York Times trying sound all-knowing in the face of complete, incapacitating ignorance, and coming across instead like a high school junior desperately padding an essay on a book they hadn’t read.
From a reader or viewer’s perspective, the news is information about whatever things of interest have happened in the world. From a media outlet’s perspective, though, the news is an empty hole that had to be filled yesterday, has to be filled today, and will have to be filled tomorrow. Sometimes the way to fill that hole is by generating a kind of synthetic news product—one that anticipates and acknowledges the existence of interesting events, without containing any interesting information.
The obvious example is cable-news coverage on Election Day before the polls close, or cable-news coverage of a breaking news story before any facts have been pinned down, or really most things on cable news. But even as Baker was setting himself and his paper above and beyond the endless hours of cable-television speculation, he was doing exactly the same thing, just as worthlessly.