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April 02, 2004

Cable Narcolepsy Network

Al and I had DirecTV installed about four months ago. 122 days ago, actually, because we've never connected the unit to a phone line, so we get periodic scoldings about just how many days it's been since the unit phoned home along with dire threats that there are only so many more times it will let us get away with watching "American Wedding" on pay-per-view (guilty). At the time, we justified the installation because Al was really, really pregnant and it was hard to get out. We figured once Ben arrived we'd probably have a few late nights where reading would be harder than keeping an eye cocked on, uh, the Discovery Channel and, uh, CSPAN (mmm hmm), and CNN.

CNN was the biggest viewing piety I'd trot out when rationalizing the addition of a dish to the house. "I miss just having a news channel! I'm so sick of Tom Brokaw's ridiculous gloss-jobs!" I hadn't had CNN in the house since some time in 1990, which made it strictly a hotel room thing, so I didn't have a good sense of the Big Picture where CNN and CNN Headline News are concerned.

Having had 122 days with them in my house, I can confidently assert that I'm thoroughly disgusted.

Since I'm all about the content reuse, here's a bit of a mail from an exchange pk and I had on the matter:

CNN really, really sucks across the board and up and down the schedule, but especially in the morning where it's apparent that Good Morning America & Good Day Live and etc. kicked the shit out of straight news. I remembered CNN with some fondness from the last time I had cable, but this time around it's just been disappointing. Like ordering a bran muffin and getting a XXX-Large cinnamon roll dripping with a Karo syrup glaze and topped off with a sugar statue of Michael Jackson. I know "chirpy" is big with the kids these days, but I just don't want it, and I REALLY don't want a bunch of spokesmodels sitting around doing the whole inside baseball thing because they think that chirpy meta-analysis trumps chirpy interviews with purveyors of fad diets. They even lifted the NBC crew's prole fishbowl schtick. All the worse because they've got someone who's apparently supposed to be a polyvalent Bill O'Reilly handing down "crusty" proclamations.

And that's pretty much my CNN plaint in as straight a fashion as I would have managed this morning, without wasting the time with a rewrite, which would just be edited to get rid of words like "shit" and perhaps get rid of the reference to the prole fishbowl, a nauseating faux populist touch topped only by John Kerry shrugging into a Carhart jacket.

In CNN's defense, it has definitely trumped NBC Nightly News in the "terrorist menace" video clippage. Where NBC is stuck using footage of terrorists on monkeybars, CNN has pulled ahead by using not only the monkeybar footage, but pictures of terrorists LEAPING THROUGH FLAMING HOOPS! (clip pending as soon as I can get it off the camera, and rumination on why my fixation with this stupid media meme is an indication that I've got the early stages of Wonkette Syndrome, a.k.a. The Pundit's Malady right here in this entry).

I decided to trot this out, by the way, thanks to a Paul Krugman column where he takes Wolf "Iron Man of Journalism" Blitzer to task for being a toady lickspittle (via TPM). Wolf, of course, was badly put off by Krugman scolding him. I hope he cried, because the thought of the Gary Gnu of Atlanta allowing himself to be called "The Iron Man of Journalism" without dying of embarassment indicates pathologies counterindicative of placing any level of trust in him.

But the problem Wolf and the rest of the blow-dried journalism set are facing isn't unique to CNN, or even television news: It's about how "objectivity" ultimately becomes a straightjacket when it's a task handed to people who confuse "objective" with "matching sets of opposing facts."

sigh Why not another snippet from a recent mail, wherein I outline what seems to be the journalism decision-making process? I think the average journo has a few versions of the story churning around in there before we're finally presented with the meek, weak version:

  1. The preferred version, which is the one with his/her personal ideological filters in place.

  2. The version the reporter thinks will be preferred by the editor and echelons above.

  3. The version the reporter thinks will be the "most balanced."

  4. The version that will show what a smarty-pants the reporter is.

They have to reconcile all of those to commit something to the page, and if the research is any indication, most of them will view the story as a synthesis of points 1 and 2, which they'll perceive to be in conflict. To get a synthesis of those two points (version 3), they'll simply line points up against each other, one-for-one. That synthesis is why modern journalism is in crisis: It's an approach that demands no conclusion outside of the raw facts.

or, as pk distilled it recently:

"This side says this, that side says that. Who's to say?"

In fact, that synthesis is a cowardly dodge designed to appease the vocal readership on either side of the ideological fence on any given issue. Complaints can be deflected with "Look! Matching numbers of bullet points!" as opposed to the much less rewarding and much more likely to be villified chore of saying "X said Y, and A said B, but in this case it's pretty clear that X was right because A ignored N."

I know, I know. The current "media model" championed by ideologues of any stripe is something along the lines of either a conservative "All reporters are liberals and hence unable to present an honest conservative view point to save their lives," or a progressive/Chomskyan "Reporters work for big media outlets run by big capital and are hence unable to present a point of view that would result in reform or change to save their lives." Perhaps everyone should consider that everyone else is equally fed up with what they're getting from the news. That's because cowardly bullet matching is going to be dissatisfying to everyone but a select few who probably map very closely to swing voters and anyone who voted for Joe Lieberman.

Version 4, by the way, "the version that will show what a smarty-pants the reporter is," is the reason CNN's "American Morning" and "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics" are so atrocious. Recognizing that it's so easy for anyone to get wire copy with very little effort, "analysis" has become the fallback Full Employment Act of news people everywhere. The facts are boring, dry things best left to stringers and junior reporters. Where the big-time journo can prove his/her worth is in providing the "analysis" only a seasoned hand can provide. The cool voice of analysis provides a fundamental detachment from the news. It makes the facts that are happening a thing we're supposed to dispassionately dissect from a safe remove. It spares us any human concern for the news or its subjects and insulates us from the risky proposition of having an opinion.

Crossfire and every Sunday morning show where matched teams of ideologues scrum are a toxic result of analysis culture. They turn political issues that will have an effect on millions into a chummy game of one-upsmanship and backslapping bonhomie between members of the analyst class who want to make it very clear that at the end of the day the whole thing is a collegial debating society for the tragically witty. The language is hot, but the underlying attitudes and takeaways about political discourse are cool. Paul Begala and Robert Novak shouldn't be ending each episode of Crossfire with a congenial smile and a sly wink across the table, because the things they're discussing frequently involve the potential for untold human suffering. If they really consider themselves involved advocates for the issues they're so faux angry about, there wouldn't be so much smug "All in good fun" winking and smirking across the table, and there'd be more real incitement.

That sort of dog-and-pony bickering, though, is what journalists do when they're liberated from the tyranny of mundane bullet-point matching and suddenly realize they might be held accountable for their opinions anyhow: it's another escape hatch from ownership of anything like a real opinion. It's easier to act like you don't really give a damn, and that anger or passion over politics is for tobacco-chewing moron dittoheads or issue-of-the-day chowderhead liberals out on the market for a new outrage.

"I said this. He said that. What, me worry?"

Posted by mph at April 2, 2004 09:44 AM