Can Smarter Clickbait Save Us?

Recently, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher both challenged the press to do their job. I embrace their arguments as far as they go, but I embrace even more the format these two co-invented along with others: Honest clickbait news.

We need it now more than ever—now, in the 21st century ADD, or era when stimulus is available everywhere, too cheap to meter, too easy to access and we’re all easily distracted by it.


What's the difference between an artist and a con-artist? Both vie for attention by delivering stimulation, but the con-artist does it solely for profit, while the artist does it to bring attention to the truth.

I have modest respect for the artistes who take refuge in pious failure as though it doesn't matter whether anyone is interested in their work. In accomplishment, I'm sort of that kind of artiste. I don't get many page views, and I justify it by claims that page views are not my only goal. Still, I try for as much attention as I can get for the truths I strain to find.

About substance, I aim to be as honest as possible; about delivery I aim to be a media whore. It's a challenging tension—trying to bring as much competitive sizzle as possible to sober truths.

Stewart, Maher, etc. are reigning masters of honest sizzle, click bait for realists, mind candy for people who aren’t afraid to think.

Still, their recent video-essays have a "make America great again" flavor: Bring back boring but important news. People should want it and the media should deliver it.

I don't have much faith in that approach. If the news gets boring again, most people will channel surf elsewhere for more sizzle.

Trump's orgy of masturbatory lies will prove a resuscitating boon for real news. Those who care about the truth are re-subscribing to traditional news outlets. Now that we are alert to the fake news epidemic, those of us who care about the truth will develop antibodies.

But those who read the news as self-affirming mental masturbation will remain fake-news junkies and there’s no stopping them, given the first amendment.

In his exit interview with Maher, President Obama expressed his great concern about the "balkanization of the media.” “If you don’t have some common baseline of facts—we can have a disagreement about how to deal with climate change, but if we have a big chunk of the country that just discounts what 99% of scientists say completely, it’s very hard to figure out how we move the democracy forward.”

Later in the interview he said, “Look, if I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me either. You’ve got this screen, this funhouse mirror through which people are receiving information. How to break through that is a big challenge.”

On the vocational continuum, art is the most honest profession and con-artist is the least. But sizzle is a different dimension. That’s why I think our greatest hope among very few options is stimulating honest media, like that pioneered by Maher and Stewart. These guys (and Bee, Colbert, Oliver, Meyers, etc.) demonstrate how to milk honest news for click-bait sizzle.

The word "news" has two meanings. In information theory it means the unexpected, the surprise, the sizzle. If there’s a 100% chance of rain and it rains, that’s not news. If there’s a 100% chance of rain and it’s sunny, that’s news. Dog bites man is less newsy than man bites dog.

But colloquially, it means the truth about what's going on.

By the first definition, zany cat videos, and Jackass movies are more newsy than Walter Cronkite. By the second definition, it's reversed. What we need now is the “hype-brid”—unexpected truth, honest sizzle.

Jon Stewart on journalism:

Bill Maher on journalism:

My illustration:

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