Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump. (Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0)

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.

Think of the 2016 presidential campaign as the political equivalent of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  It’s loud; there are plenty of abusive special effects; the critics hate it, but the crowds turn out; a media company or three rake in the dough; and foreigners can’t get enough of this new vision of the American way of life — or is it of a Bizarro world?

If you prefer, you could think of Campaign 2016, the never-ending blockbuster, as an affirmation that, whatever the hell this country is, it’s still, like Hollywood, at the top of the heap.  When it comes to gluing eyeballs, it remains the “sole superpower” on Planet Earth.  Think of it, in fact, any way you like, but just notice that the only thing you can’t do is not think about it.

This came to my mind recently on my daily trip to the gym.  A TV is always on in the anteroom you pass through to reach the men’s locker room.  A couple of weeks ago, I started to jot down what was onscreen.  So let me give you a rundown of one week’s worth of my comings and goings.

Monday: This proved the oddball news day of my exercise week.  As I arrived, CNN was reporting from a “locked down” Capitol — shots of people running hither and yon — and it was still doing so with remarkably similar shots an hour and 40 minutes later when I left.  It turned out that some madman — and I mean that quite literally since, on an earlier occasion, the same fellow was arrested for shouting that he was “a prophet of God” from the gallery of the House of Representatives — had pulled out a pellet gun in the Capitol’s visiting area and been shot by the police.  In the new American media world in which 24/7 obsession is the definition of news, that minor story played nonstop for the rest of the day and I caught it again leading NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (“Gunman at U.S. Capitol Shot by Police”).

Tuesday, as I walked in, CNN was focused on the arrest of Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, for an “assault” on Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields in Jupiter, Florida (the American version of outer space).  As I left, Governor John Kasich on MSNBC was just “weighing in” on — you guessed it — Lewandowski’s “alleged battery,” with a Washington Post reporter on deck, ready to offer crucial analysis on the same subject, while a Donald Trump tweet was also under discussion.

Wednesday as I arrived, MSNBC was reporting that a new Hillary Clinton ad had just blasted — you guessed it again — Donald Trump for “xenophobia” and that she was four percentage points behind Bernie Sanders in the latest Wisconsin poll.  On the crawler at the bottom of the screen, Trump’s campaign manager was said to have declared himself “absolutely innocent” of the battery charge.  On my way out, I found correspondent Katy Tur “awaiting” Trump’s arrival at a stop in Wisconsin.  And oh yes, women, I learned, disliked Trump for his “some form of punishment” abortion comment.

Thursday as I came in, MSNBC was showing a Jimmy Kimmel Live! clip in which Ted Cruz half-jokingly told the nighttime host that, were he to see — yes, you guessed it yet again! — The Donald through his rearview mirror in a parking lot as he was backing up, he wasn’t quite sure which pedal he’d hit, the gas or the brake.  On leaving, I wandered past a crew of Washington Post writers discussing — yep! — Donald Trump’s first meeting with his foreign policy advisers in Washington.  He was, I was fascinated to learn, “huddling” with them. 

Friday, I arrived just as the CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin was revving up under the logo “America’s Choice 2016.”  “Wisconsin,” Baldwin was saying, “is the next big primary for both Democrats and Republicans, but on the GOP side frontrunner Donald Trump is also focusing his attention on the party’s convention in July and how the delegate process will play out.”  As I left, she was still yakking away, this time over a caption that read: “Backing off pledge could cost Trump delegates.”  On a split screen with her was a Republican National Committee member — “an expert on GOP nominating processing,” she told us — discussing the significance of Trump’s recent meeting with Republican Party head Reince Priebus.  (Not much, it turned out.)

And that was one week’s exercising news for me.  I can’t for a second claim it didn’t keep me in decent shape, but the rest of America?

Now, let me try to sum up that week in American “news” glimpsed in passing at the gym and then watched as it repeated itself at dinner time and other moments.  Here goes: Donald Trump.  Donald Trump.  Donald Trump.  Ted Cruz.  Donald Trump. Donald Trump.  Donald Trump.  Hillary Clinton.  Donald Trump.  Donald Trump.  Donald Trump.  (Bernie Sanders.)  The previous week, it would, of course, have been Brussels, Brussels, Brussels, Donald Trump, Brussels, Brussels, Brussels, Donald Trump, etc., etc.

There.  Satisfied?  Now, turn off that TV, put down that screen in your hand, I’ve got something to tell you about the news.

The News Zone

It goes without saying that I’m not talking about the news as it once was.  Think of it now as a kind of obsessive onscreen activity, sometimes humdrum, remarkably repetitive, yet often riveting.  Think of it mainly as something most of us live with but have yet to come to grips with or really define.  With the ever-present screens in all our lives, no one can help but tune in these days in one way or another to various versions of what we still call “the news.”  In doing so, we largely leave the real world and any sense of balance or perspective behind.  Otherwise a startling percentage of Americans wouldn’t be convinced that terrorism of the Islamic variety — yes, terrorism! — is America’s number one problem; this in a country in which you’re more likely to be killed or wounded by a toddler with a gun than an Islamic terrorist with the same.

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