Today In The Mayonnaise Clinic: Why Do Journalists Talk About Feelings So Much?
Plus: Josh is not very good at poker.
Happy Wednesday! Before I get to the mail this week, I want to address a question I get sometimes: Why the hell is this called the “Mayonnaise Clinic”? And it’s a fair question.
If you’re not familiar, I wrote a seminal piece on mayonnaise back in 2018 for Insider, titled “You Like Mayonnaise.” The point of the piece is not so much that mayonnaise is good — though it is — but that your revealed preference is for mayonnaise, even if you protest otherwise. Mayonnaise is in and on everything. Sometimes it’s mixed with other foods and you call it “salad.” Sometimes it’s flavored and you call it “aïoli.” In any case, you eat it, and therefore you like it.
These are the levels of self-knowledge I hope to help us all reach in this weekly mailbag (mail-jar) column. We’re learning, together.
Now, the mail.
Cody Kuiper has a question about NPR:
Back for a second question after getting some solid and very public advice from you to ditch my super negative friends!
I saw you recently draw attention to NPR advising their readers on how to deal with traumatic news stories (breathe lmao). It seems like this has been a trend for a few years now where journalists — not just at NPR, but in legacy media as a whole — want to tell readers how they should feel about a certain piece of news.
Is this something you notice on a wider scale, too? I'm not sure if it's simply generational, or it's an overcorrection from these outlets feeling like they failed to properly frame the stakes of the 2016 election.
I'm an advocate for open conversations around mental health, but it does feel like journalists' personal moods and anxieties are coloring their pieces in ways they didn't used to.
So, NPR, like other major outlets, is in a lot of businesses at once. They’re doing in-depth on the ground coverage of the war from Ukraine. They also have a section for life advice, for readers who I guess want to be advised on things like what to do when the news stresses them out. But when NPR shared this listicle — “5 ways to cope with the stressful news cycle” — with its 9 million Twitter followers, that reflected a news judgment that this was something the whole reading public needed to know about. And that wasn’t very good news judgment.
One thing going on here is that journalists have become obsessed with trauma and especially with the alleged trauma of having to interface with the news. That can be because news content itself is traumatic, or it can be because being a reporter requires having interactions with sources and coverage subjects and readers who can be hostile and unreasonable. It’s a flip side of the self-vaunting the media has engaged in since Donald Trump won the 2016 election, talking endlessly about our own role as a bulwark of democracy: Since we’re so important, we get to take righteous umbrage when people say unkind things about us, and generally talk a lot about how hard and perhaps even traumatic it is to do our jobs.
I really don’t care for this talk. Our readers’ jobs can be stressful and unpleasant too, everyone has their troubles, and unlike some of the subjects of our coverage, we sought to be public facing. This last part is especially important — we subject other people to the spotlight, in ways they do not control, often against their preference. There are good reasons why we do this.1 But since we do, it does not behoove us to complain about how hard it is to be in and around the news.
The other trend, as you note, is news that’s written to tell you how you should feel and what you should think. This is definitely on the rise, and I think a lot of the blame lies with readers, many of whom seem to demand this format. Look how mad people on Twitter get at Maggie Haberman for not appending “and that is bad” after whatever she reports Donald Trump is doing.
But there are also important drivers of this on the supply side.
One is what journalist Wesley Lowery calls “moral clarity” — which includes adding more explicit moral judgments into news coverage. Passing moral judgment is not precisely the same thing as telling people how to feel, but it’s hard to do the former without appearing to do the latter. And the dominant news stories of the last six years have tended to lend themselves to the impulse to moralize.