The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Is this a thing? Is this a . . . boom?’: How Washington copes with the insane Trump-era news cycle

(Lydia Ortiz/For The Washington Post)

Benjamin Wittes, a legal commentator with a large Twitter following, was on an airplane last month when the FBI raided the office of President Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen. He spent hours unaware of the news, a fact that seems to have sparked a mini existential crisis.

“My first reaction was, ‘if I had known about that I would have boomed a baby cannon,’ ” Wittes said in an interview.

Boomed a baby cannon?

For the uninitiated, Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, likes to tweet out big stories with one-word commentary: “Boom,” often with video of a tiny cannon blowing something up. Missing a blockbuster story had him worried about the credibility of the whole project.

“I grew concerned that the boom was going to lose all of its emotional, and for that matter intellectual power,” said Wittes, a former member of The Washington Post editorial board. If he were to elevate relatively small news developments but miss the biggest one, he wondered, “Who will trust the booms are booms?”

Today’s news cycle has made otherwise thoughtful people go nuts.

Every week Twitter streams swell with stories that travel at whitewater speeds: The Russians met with Trump in the Oval Office; the president thinks Africa is filled with “shithole ” countries; former FBI director Jim Comey has memos; Kanye said what? Phones buzz with email alerts and television chyrons try to keep up with indictments, FBI raids and personnel changes. NSC director Mike Flynn resigns; Secretary Tom Price resigns; EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt . . . wait has that happened yet?

We’ve all got questions, and special counsel Robert Mueller has them too. In fact, he’s got 49 of them — covering all topics from real estate deals in Moscow to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation — according to the latest report from the New York Times.

Across the country, but especially in and around Washington, people are trying to figure out how to consume news when the news is all-consuming. Every time news breaks, it means thousands of people look to their loved ones, to Twitter, to Slack and ask: Does this matter?

Is this a thing?

Is this . . . a boom?

“I feel like I’m losing my mind sometimes,” said Vivian Schiller, the former head of NPR and now a self-described news addict.

“Like everybody, I have all my alerts that come across my phone,” said Frank Sesno, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “It happens like every 10 seconds, and every time something beeps I look.”

“I live in a world where before I go in the shower I have to check Twitter,” said Neera Tanden, the head of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

“When you see a boom, it’s me saying this is a really big deal,” Wittes said. “The problem with that methodology is I’m not sure I know what the threshold of a really big deal is anymore.”

As 2016 lurched from one crazy headline to the next, reporters and commentators braced for the inevitable post-election comedown. The expected Hillary Clinton presidency would certainly have its share of scandals, but its lack of Trumpian churn and off-the-wall tweeting would lead to withdrawal-like symptoms. And then, even when Trump won, half of the chattering class expected him to “pivot” into something resembling a normal president, if only because no one could imagine the pace of news keeping up for four years, let alone eight.

But the relentlessness has continued apace; as has the inability to look away.

“If anything can happen at any moment, I’m afraid to be separated from a news source for too long,” said Schiller. “Which I know is kind of ridiculous, since I know if I’m not looking, it will still be there when I’m back.”

This idea of being “present” for the news, Schiller said, can give her this semblance of control in an otherwise out-of-control world. For some, being in the know is a cultural cachet. For others, it’s about marking history when it happened (I remember where I was when Comey got fired. I was on Twitter). And then, there are those people for whom wading through the news is the job.

“I go into every day thinking, ‘What’s the thing that’s going to hold until 7:30 p.m.,” said Shawna Thomas, the Washington bureau chief for Vice News. “I try to ask myself, is this something that’s either changing people’s lives or changing how our government is run. . . . It’s incredibly hard to keep an eye on what will matter.”

Amanda Carpenter, a Republican commentator, has started stashing an array of dresses in her truck, knowing that at any minute, news could require her to run to a CNN studio. But that’s nothing compared with one of her reporter friends.

“I know someone who is planning her wedding based on when she thinks big revelations from the Russia investigation might be,” Carpenter said. “She said her honeymoon is off the table.”

When Tommy Vietor and his fellow Obama alums were putting together their now-popular political podcast empire, he said, they spent time and money making it possible to live stream their signature show, “Pod Save America,” whenever they wanted.

“We hardly use it,” he says now. The news comes so fast and so often, they might never leave the studio if they responded in real time to everything.

“There’s this strange feeling that you’ve failed to do your duty as a citizen if you don’t know everything as it’s happening,” he said. “But the best way to actually consume news might be to get off Twitter.”

When were you able to stop looking at Twitter?

“Oh, not me,” Vietor said. “I’m completely addicted.”

Schiller said she gets “heart palpitations” thinking about deleting her social media apps from her phone. The closest she can get to quitting is putting the device on “Do Not Disturb” at night.

Sesno said he and his wife have a “no news consumption after 9 p.m.” rule but that he violates it “on a regular basis.”

“It’s free, and it’s legal, and it comes right to us,” he said.

It can be almost impossible to know whether something is a big deal or not in real time. It won’t be until years later that we can really determine whether Flynn’s firing, Manafort’s indictment, the Stormy Daniels lawsuit (or for that matter the Summer Zervos one), was the biggest story of the Trump presidency. So, the only way to be sure you’re not missing anything is to consume it all.

The bad news, for anyone thinking that this will completely end when Trump is no longer president, is that it really might not. Sure, a more “normal” president won’t tweet the same way, or have quite as many controversies per day, but the way we consume news might be forever changed.

“The speed of information can’t really slow down,” said Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute. “I think it’s a permanent change.”

We can’t go back. All we can do is figure out when it’s really worth booming our baby cannons.

Monica Hesse contributed to this report.