Well, That Was Stupid
August is routinely the year's stupidest news month. This year was no exception.
Do you remember the summer of 2001? Time magazine declared it the “summer of the shark” because our nation was gripped by fearsome shark attacks.
It all started on July 6, 2001, with a near-fatal attack on an 8-year-old boy in Florida, who had his severed arm reattached in a remarkable surgery. This was a compelling human interest story that happened on a holiday weekend, and it got a lot of attention. This was followed by a string of less spectacular shark attacks, many of them in Florida, that drew saturation media coverage throughout July and August, along with warnings about the dangers of swimming in shark-infested waters. “Hundreds of sharks spotted off Florida,” declared one August 15 CNN headline.
The main problem with this coverage was that nothing especially notable was happening with shark attacks in 2001. Shark attacks happen every year, and the rate of attacks in 2001 was not especially elevated — it’s just that the really spectacular attack in early July caused people to pay attention to subsequent attacks they otherwise would not have noticed. That swarm of sharks off Florida? Just a normal annual migration. As reporters started to look under the hood and realize the shark story was really a non-story, that led to another set of news cycles about the prior shark news cycles. By September 4, CNN was reporting about how its own prior shark coverage had been BS: “Year of shark ‘hype,’ says expert.”
A week later, nearly 3,000 people died in the September 11 terror attacks.
On October 2, the Onion ran a news brief headlined “A shattered nation longs to care about stupid bullshit again.” A graphic accompanying the brief shows Britney Spears rising from the ashes of the destroyed World Trade Center, draped in a Burmese python for her summer 2001 VMA performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Over her right shoulder is a shark. To her left are the other news stars of August 2001: Congressman Gary Condit, who on August 23 admitted he had not “been a perfect man” but assured Connie Chung that he had not murdered his intern/lover Chandra Levy; and Danny Almonte, the Little League World Series phenom with a 70+ mph fastball and a suspiciously mature appearance, whom Sports Illustrated had reported on August 27 was 14 years old, and therefore two years too old for Little League.
The 9/11 attacks produced an unusually abrupt end to 2001’s summer silly season for news coverage. But the silly season itself is not terribly unusual. In August, Congress goes on recess, lots of people (including the president) go on vacation, and the quantity of serious news structurally declines. Sometimes there’s a news story enormous enough to fill the hole all by itself, like the OJ Simpson murder trial in 1995. And in leap years, the one-two punch of the presidential election and the Summer Olympics usually gives reporters and pundits and viewers plenty to talk about.1 But in other years, there’s just less news available, and the Condit/Almonte/sharks-type stories must expand to fill the August news void.
This has been one of those years.
Here are my nominations for the Most-August News Stories Of August2 2023:
This twerp is never going to be president and he doesn’t even really have “ideas” as such, but he’s super annoying and therefore we all talked about him last month. Indeed, my rant about his Backpfeifengesicht is my most-engaged post on this platform ever, according to Substack’s algorithm. If you told me I’d one day write a rant about how I want to punch a presidential candidate in the face, and the rant would then be discussed — favorably — on “Meet the Press,” I wouldn’t have believed you. But if you assured me it was true and then asked me to guess which month this would happen in, I would have correctly guessed August.
Half of Twitter getting angry about yet another “Pete’s not queer enough” screed from some possibly-LGBT communist
Had this one been sitting in the drafts folder for three and a half years?
Every phase of the “Rich Men North of Richmond” news arc
Liberals losing their minds about having to hear a song with lyrics they disagree with; conservative pundits elevating Oliver Anthony into a hero only for Anthony to declare himself a political centrist; Fox News opening a presidential debate with a question about the song, only for Anthony to say the debaters were among the song’s targets; extensive news coverage trying to discern exactly what Anthony’s politics are; Slavoj Žižek writing a takedown of the song for the New Statesman — a textbook August news story.
Yes, it’s back again; this is how seasonal respiratory diseases work. A small handful of institutions have responded to the rise in cases by imposing 2020-style mask mandates, which is stupid. This has in turn led to a widespread conservative freakout over the idea that President Biden intends to return the country to lockdown, which he does not. I’m also seeing people getting annoyed about articles like this one from the LA Times (actually published in late July), with advice about how to reduce your odds of getting COVID. “Consider masking when you’re around people,” the article says. Remember that the audience for these articles is COVID-obsessives — if you don’t like the advice, you’re under no obligation to follow it, any more than you have to limit yourself to two drinks a week just because some bureaucrat said that was a good idea. In the summer of 2001, there were a lot of news stories filled with guidance about how to reduce your risk of getting bitten by a shark; worrying yourself to death about that, too, was optional.
People fighting over whether France or the US has better food
As you know, I know the US has much going for it, relative to France: We are richer and more industrious; we have a constitutional right to freedom of speech; our buildings are air-conditioned and our cars have automatic transmission. It is also very hard to find a bartender in France who knows how to make a proper Manhattan. But the food is obviously better over there than it is here. This isn’t even a fun question like “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” where each side can muster a colorable argument. It’s the sort of thing you argue about when you’ve run out of everything else to argue about. I think maybe what happened is that Philippe Lemoine and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who are right-wing, made the initial pro-French food arguments, and then PEG made some additional gratuitous comments about Mexican food, and so other people started reasoning from the fact that they didn’t like Philippe and PEG and concluded that only the opposite of whatever they said could be true. This was bad logic that led to a bad conclusion. I wish I were in France, because if I were, I would grab a pile of delicious croissants for €1 apiece and shove them in the mouths of any people who tried to tell me French food is inferior to American food. I’d also eat some of the croissants myself.
September is here, we’re about to have a government spending negotiation, and the arrival of some real, substantive government news means this month will be less stupid than last month. But we’ll see. After all, August doesn’t really end until Labor Day.
P.S. Did I miss any of the other important unimportant stories from this August? Let me know in the comments.
Of course, sometimes the Olympics stories are the silly season stories, like when Ryan Lochte lied about being robbed at a gas station during the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016.