Maybe your spouse is worried about you. Perhaps it’s your employer. They’ve noticed marked declines in your attention in recent weeks. Just stop refreshing the New York Times and Washington Post, they say. Turn off CNN. Or if you’re into the harder stuff: Stop. Checking. Twitter.
Maybe you too have started to wonder whether you’re getting too obsessed with the Trump-Russia storyline right now. The news is coming so thick and fast, it can be hard not to stare slack-jawed at each new development.
But do you absolutely have to read every new drop of information about Jeff Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak? Did you really have to watch that whole mad-ass Carter Page interview, instead of just the edited bit, where the Trump associate admitted meeting that same gentleman from Moscow at the GOP convention?
Maybe you worry that all the Trump hatred —your own included—has gotten out of hand. People are furious. And they’re focusing their fury on getting political scalps. It’s not always a good look. Perhaps, you think, you should quit the daily Trump soap opera altogether, and go binge-watch something less weird. This stuff will just sort itself out even if you don’t pay attention, right?
To which we say: Hell no.
You shouldn’t just DVR the present crisis and plan on catching up at the end of the season. There are two very, very good reasons why the Washington circus is must-see TV right now.
First: this is history, right here. When a president is being investigated by his own intelligence community for electoral collusion with a foreign dictator, normal rules of behavior are suspended. When you look back on 2017, you won’t regret finishing that quarterly report a few days late—but you may regret not paying attention to this insane, once-in-a-lifetime story.
Whichever way it turns out in the end, whether there’s all been some hilarious misunderstanding and a perfectly reasonable explanation for all the contact between Trump surrogates and Russia, or whether we unearth mind-boggling levels of actual treason, you’re going to have school kids at the end of your life asking you about this very moment in time. Grandma, were you really alive back when [people worried] the American president was a Russian puppet?
Bigger than Watergate
The 1973 Watergate hearings were a national obsession. A staggering 85% of Americans tuned in for some or all of the 250 hours of Senators grilling John Dean and Co. It was a controversial decision at the time, and the Nixon Administration made veiled threats about defunding PBS for screening it, but the American people lapped up the summer-long soap opera about the cover-up of a burglary.
All ages, creeds and races sat glued to their tiny screen, and everyone knew the key questions: What did the president know, and when did he know it?
It’s not a story. Not in the scripted Game of Thrones meets Veep sense, anyway, although that is an increasingly good elevator pitch for our present nightmare. No, this sh*t is interactive.
If everything in the volumes of reporting on Trump’s Russia connection holds up to independent investigation, we’re often reminded, it’ll be a bigger deal than Watergate. A more effective political burglary, a more international cover-up.
If things get to the point where Congress does its job and asks what the president knew and when he knew it, we’d better hope that 85% of Americans are glued to their tiny screens. Otherwise we’ll be letting the dropped-out hippies of the 1970s kick our asses in civic awareness.
So getting hooked on the drama now is like watching Season 1 of a show that only gets really good in later arcs. You’re building a thorough grounding in the story now, so you can better understand the wild plot twists to come.
The second, more important reason to not pull your focus from this story: It’s not a story. Not in the scripted Game of Thrones-meets-Veep sense, anyway, although that is an increasingly good elevator pitch for our present nightmare. No, this sh*t is interactive.
The independent counsel investigation of Trump’s tax returns and ties to the Kremlin isn’t coming at the moment. It may never come. GOP excuses for this are becoming ever more outlandish—one Congressman said Thursday that the legislature simply wasn’t equipped to investigate crime. So, y’know, ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
All of which means the equivalent of the Watergate Senate Committee is playing out right now in the court of public opinion. There are no prosecutors yet. There are no subpoenas. We’re in the Woodward and Bernstein phase. There are only a handful of reporters and whistleblowers risking the daily wrath of the most powerful executive branch on Earth.
That reporting could yet get buried. It wouldn’t take a terrorist attack to push it off the front page; it would merely take a drop in public interest. If enough of us merely shrug, if all this Russia stuff gets old fast, the investigation could go cold.
Especially in this age of instant analytics and pageview reports, editors pay attention to what you’re reading and what you’re not. Reporters don’t get to follow much of the latter.
So stay obsessed, and keep insisting that your Congressmen pay attention too. If your spouse and employer ask what you’re doing when you spend hours trawling Twitter, tell them you’re saving the Republic. It isn’t too far from the truth.