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Vapornews: The Huge-Then-Disappearing Stories of 2010

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Remember when the Park51 Islamic center, or “Ground Zero mosque,” was the absolutely most urgent political-religious-cultural issue facing the United States? When there were protests and fury and old 9/11 wounds reopened, and you needed to choose a side, and politicians from New York to Washington to Alaska defended or refudiated the plan, and cable news and the Internet and the rest of the media basically freaked out about it for several weeks? Remember when it was the single biggest story in the news?

And then it just kind of wasn’t?

Materially, nothing much substantially has changed about the story. (Nothing, at least, other than the fact that the 9/11 anniversary passed, and the midterm elections are over.) The project is still going ahead. The location still is what it is. The people who are offended, or offended at other people’s being offended, are presumably still, well, offended. But apparently the media has just exhausted itself on the issue.

This is the time of year when we reflect on everything that happened over the course of the last twelve months. But it’s also worth taking a little time to reflect on the news stories that we aren’t reflecting on now, even though, for a few weeks in 2010, we seemed to be collectively obsessed with them—and which now we aren’t, for no apparent substantive reason other than that we’ve maybe exhausted ourselves, and maybe the stories were never actually that important in the first place. I dub these everywhere-today-gone-tomorrow stories: Vapornews.

It doesn’t even take that long for the last wisps of a vapornews story to disapparate before our eyes, leaving barely a trace of the subject’s existence. Remember the invasive body scans and screenings the TSA was perpetrating? It was incredible! The TSA would make you strip naked and parade you through the airport while pointing at you! They could kick down your door, march into your home and feel you up for basically no reason!

Or something like that. I can’t remember the details exactly, because it was years ago. Or, you know, three or four weeks. Either way, it dropped out of the news, I’m guessing because the TSA was entirely overhauled and security procedures perfected, or because we solved terrorism. Or because we haven’t yet hit another big travel holiday to peg the story to, and Matt Drudge is not suddenly blaring the story at the top of his homepage.

Ah, Matt Drudge. Clearly one factor some vapornews stories share is that they were ongoing issues that were suddenly made into major headlines seemingly through force of will, by media provacateurs, politically interested parties or both. (As when Fox News and like-minded parties discovered the Park51 outrage months after they had reported on it and found it not at all outrageous.) Then—once the story has served its purpose or simply outstayed its welcome—the drumbeat ceases, even though nothing in the story has materially changed. Other vapornews stories may be inflated by hot-button issues too—Shirley Sherrod, Juan Williams—but reach their endpoint naturally (a controversial figure loses a job, say, or gets a new one), and suddenly The Biggest Story in the Country isn’t.

I’ve barely begun the examples here, so feel free to offer some of your own examples of vapornews in the comments. If you can remember the stories, that is, which, if the media has done its job properly, you can’t.