Everyone who reads journalism—I include electronic versions, published by newspapers or not—knows that journalists have a serious weakness for trivial stories and non-stories. It’s ninety-eight degrees, with humidity that is both palpable and visible, and the newspaper or website will inform you, prominently, that it’s hot outside. Stunning. Then there is the annual discovery that it gets cold in the winter.
But at least those efforts, feeble as they are, contain a trace of substance. If it’s going to be as cold as a corporate vice president’s heart out there, you’ll know to bundle up. And they help fuel our need for desultory, time-filling social conversation. “Did you see the paper this morning? Going to be a scorcher out there.”
Then there are stories that are merely stunts. Truly meaningless stories that, because they occur with regularity and are the lowest of low-hanging fruit, are irresistible to writers and editors without imagination.
There is the seasonal article about the estimated cost of purchasing the gifts enumerated in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Someone at PNC Bank, for which this is a publicity stunt, looks at “Twelve lords a-leaping” and makes a fanciful estimate of how much it costs the rent the British aristocracy these days. Utterly bogus and, truth be told, not particularly entertaining.
There are the annual college rankings by U.S. News, which, pathetically, has become crucial to universities’ recruiting. Only a few recognize the highly questionable methodology and refuse to participate. It’s highly unlikely that any university changes very dramatically year to year (“We just hired an assistant professor of economics, and eighty percent of our undergraduate courses are taught by teaching assistants and underpaid adjuncts whom we never observe in the classroom!”), so the changes in rankings year to year have to be accounted for by shifts of social status and superstition. But it does boost sales for the faltering U.S. News.
Today, one of the most venerable stunts of all, Time’s Person of the Year, is upon us. No, if you don’t already know, I’m not going to break the exciting news here. I don’t care. Probably neither do you. It’s a tired stunt, which may have looked fresh in 1927, by another publication in decline. In recent years the person of the year hasn’t even been a person, but an attempt to pin a sociological label on the year. Remember when it was You? Remember which year that was? Neither do I.
Such stuff is of even less moment than articles about the Kardashians.