Leutz: Nothing in Moderation

Taking the temperature of hot takes.

by Peter Leutz | 2/7/19 2:15am

 I have never been tasked with breaking a story — that’s not my job. My job is to write hot takes for The Dartmouth. To be slightly more pretentious, I am a columnist for the opinion section of America’s Oldest College Newspaper. 

The image of a modern consumer sitting down to read a newspaper is obsolete. The modern media consumer is constantly multitasking and extremely busy. There exist lifetimes worth of content between the many layers of social media: dozens of which may be calling your name as we speak. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and I are all jockeying for your attention. This race is unfair for columnists like me. With so many distractions, media consumers’ attention spans have become far shorter. This phenomenon has been confirmed by Canadian neuroscientists who found in a 2015 survey that the age of the Internet has drastically improved people’s ability to multitask, yet decreased their average attention span by one third. 

You can’t watch this column in the form of a four-minute clip. You can’t glance at this column, double tap and scroll. There is no 280-character limit on this column, and the further I exceed the Twitter limit, the greater the risk of losing your attention — if I still have it. My only chance against today’s media juggernauts that have suffocated the newspaper industry is to chase controversy with opinions that border on radical. When readers have a half dozen other sites they could be on with the swipe of their finger, radical has become the new normal. 

Over Winterim, I often watched the news with my parents. Their taste in news and political opinion reflects that of much of America, as every night they tuned in to watch MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” which is now America’s no. 1 show on cable news. Each night Maddow would uncover more dirt on Donald Trump, convincing viewers across the nation, my parents included, that Trump could be impeached any day. Maddow has been doing this since Trump has been in office, each night bringing the same alarming tone that insinuates complete crisis, because if she didn’t, viewers would stop watching. Obviously, it’s not a particularly radical opinion for Rachel Maddow to believe America’s president is in danger of impeachment. However, on day 23 of watching what was approached as an unfolding national emergency that never quite fully unfolded, it became clear that the issue was being radically framed for the sake of viewership, and successfully so.  

Maddow is leading the pack in modern journalism because of her comfort with serving crisis and controversy to a ravenous American public on a nightly basis. Beyond content, modern media has adjusted its structure to the current preferences of their evolving consumers by hitting them hard and fast with news. Snapchat news is a great example, where news companies like NBC and CNN condense the day’s news into minute-long stories that viewers can tap through at their leisure. 

The modern consumer is so pressed for time that the word “opinion” itself is too long. The now-antiquated seven letter word has been superseded by its cooler younger sibling “take.” which is practically fast food for opinion writers. These pieces hold only vaguely more profundity than their headline, which may be the only part of the piece that readers have time for. Takes are less focused on getting it right, and more concerned with getting clicks, the currency of the world of opinion-based journalism. 

Purists in the world of journalism, much like Andrew Sullivan (a writer with three decades of experience in the industry), are averse to the idea of takes crowding out well-crafted opinions: “The Take is barely, if at all, edited. The young Take-producer is given no time to learn to report or read anything other than everyone else’s takes . . . Here’s 80 words on something James Franco did. Here’s 100 words on ISIS.” Ironically, I didn’t have time to read Sullivan’s entire piece about takes — proving that even traditionalists are forced to exist within journalism’s new system of opinion. 

The best takes are served hot. A hot take is defined as a radical opinion that is not widely held. The hotter the take, the more airtime one is awarded. Controversy sells, and news sources need the money desperately. In this way, moderate opinions are becoming obsolete, because the modern consumer simply doesn’t have time for them. Journalists are slicing their opinions into takes and then setting them on fire, just to be heard. Moderation is unimpressive — boring, even. The disappearance of the moderate in media today is reflected by an ideologically polarized nation.