While it’s convenient to receive news at any time of day, it’s rare that newsworthy events happen all day, every day, day in and day out. But don’t tell that to MSNBC, Newsworld, Fox News and CNN. Thanks to them, the anchors on the six o’clock news have become quaint novelties. The only thing nightly news has on the twenty-four-hour information networks is the ability to digest a thought and contemplate it for a moment before having to report it. They might even be able to write it down first.
I watched the American election returns on CNN, which was about as tedious as it gets. I can’t watch Fox News. I just can’t. I also have an aversion to shows like Hardball and Crossfire, where people talk over each other for a half-hour. I’m a quiet talker. I often mumble. When I’m in a group situation, I tend to be talked over. Normally, I’m not bothered by this—I just wait until there’s a lull and then throw in my two cents, but it can be frustrating to have to fight to be heard. Just because someone is the loudest doesn’t make him right, but the hooting and hollering programs trade on the notion that the loudest and most vociferous voice is the one worth listening to.
Crossfire and Hardball serve very little purpose except to obscure the issues. Jon Stewart’s now famous exchange on HardballCrossfire is proof of that. Stewart was a guest on the show prior to the election and spent the duration of his interview lecturing left-winger Paul Begala and right-winger Tucker Carlson about how horrible their show is and pointed out that Carlson needed to go to journalism school. Upon being informed by Carlson that he was funnier on The Daily Show, Stewart replied, “You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.” And rather than making people feel uncomfortable—excluding, perhaps, Tucker Carlson—Stewart was articulating what has been on the mind of anyone watching TV news for the past decade, if not longer.
“You’re a dick.” I can’t say how many times I’ve muttered that at the television. Or something worse. Often something worse. And while watching the election returns, I couldn’t help but think that everyone was a dick. Fortunately, there was an absence of hooting and hollering on election night. In 2000, the channels fell prey to the same verbal masturbation that they incur on a regular basis and ended up muddling the election. This time, they decided to err on the side of caution.
Overall, I think that CNN was the most prudent in its election reports. It waited the longest to declare the winners of each state, whereas CBS broke the returns as fast as possible. NBC’s coverage from “Democracy Plaza”—which, I think, is located somewhere on the moon—was largely baffling. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was particularly sombre. It’s difficult to make jokes when so many people’s hearts are breaking. And the CBC attempted to offer balanced opinion from Canada, trudging through a sea of Kerry supporters to find a few poor souls willing to admit that they preferred Bush. They all looked embarrassed and desperate to be anywhere else (Texas, perhaps?).
Then there was CBS’s Dan Rather. Earlier in the election season, he reported a story on 60 Minutes about how George W. Bush evaded his commitment to the National Guard. Unfortunately, the documents cited in the report couldn’t be accurately verified and Rather took the brunt of the blame. Meanwhile, the exact nature of Bush’s Guard duty remains unknown. On election night, when the floodgates had been opened to non-stop news coverage, Rather seemed to be making up for his gaffe with an arsenal of homespun similes. “Ohio becomes like a sauna for the two candidates. All they can do is wait and sweat.” Or “This race is humming along like Ray Charles.” Or “His lead is as thin as turnip soup.” Wait! He’s not done yet: “In southern states they beat him like a rented mule.” And “This race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex.”
How does he come up with this shit? I don’t know and, quite frankly, I don’t want to know. I think he jots the lines down before the cameras roll, but when you’re trying to fill ten hours with some kind of noise, things tend to be said that might not have made it into the second draft—although with Rather, sometimes the second draft is just as wonky as the first.
Of all the networks, CBS is at the top of the shit heap for half-arsed news reporting. It took one wrong turn off the interstate and hasn’t been able to get back on. Take, for instance, its reporting of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death on November 10. In hopes of beating out the other news channels, CBS cut into the top-rated crime drama CSI: NY to report that Arafat had passed away (for real this time). It’s important news, even though most Americans don’t know why they’re supposed to dislike Arafat. Unfortunately, anyone on the East Coast who was eagerly anticipating Scooby-Doo and Gary Sinise’s revelation of this week’s whodunit was left with blue balls. CBS placed the blame on an “overly aggressive CBS News producer,” who “jumped the gun with a report that should have been offered to local stations for their late news.” Suffice it to say, people were pissed off and CBS is going to re-air the episode of CSI: NY for anyone forced to trundle off to bed with too many unanswered questions in his or her head.
(Granted, I was more than a little angry the other day when I discovered that football had caused the season premiere of The Simpsons to be pre-empted and my confused TiVo instead recorded a little bit of King of the Hill and a little bit of Malcolm in the Middle. I’m not writing nasty letters to Fox about it. However, if football pre-empts the upcoming episode featuring Thomas Pynchon, I might have to put my foot through the screen. But that’s football and not the death of a man some see as a defender of his country and others see as a terrorist. Some things are more important that receiving a constant flow of entertainment.)
Mostly, I blame the tragic turn of events in America on the way the media focused on what surrounds the issues as opposed to the issues themselves. And perhaps leaving the rounding up of young voters to P. Diddy was a mistake. Vote or Die? Can’t we do both? Or neither? Can’t I just vote? So, no thanks. I don’t blame P. Diddy for wanting to motivate young people to vote, but maybe he’s just not that cool anymore. No Way Out was released in 1997, and you can purchase it used from Amazon for a buck. I don’t even know what the kids like these days. Ashlee Simpson can be exposed as a lip-syncher on Saturday Night Live, and outside of the blogosphere no one really cares. I don’t even care, really. The only thing I can say with any certainty is that Ashlee Simpson did a breath mint commercial with her sister Jessica, and if we were stuck in an elevator together I’d probably want to claw my eyeballs out.
So we can’t count on Ashlee Simpson. Eminem gave it the old college try with “Mosh,” a video in which he leads an army of people wearing black hoodies into voting booths to dispatch Bush—21 million of them apparently, an absolutely astounding number—but it wasn’t quite enough. What more does it take?
I’m not sure, but I think we’re on the right track here. In my mind, future presidential elections will follow along a concept called the Long Tail. Writing for Wired magazine in October 2004, Chris Anderson defined the Long Tail as follows: “Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits.” So, if you wait long enough, anything could conceivably be a hit, and “Mosh” could very well be a barnstormer of a hit—in 2008. Not only that, but after two close elections where the Democrats did everything they could but still came up with misses, the Long Tail gives us some hope for change. The United States is a purple country after all. In the case of Eminem, at least he said what he did, when he did and how he did. It’s there and it’s preserved. The perception of society in art is much more lasting than the endless gibbering of fools like Robert Novak, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and the like.
I do think Dan Rather is on to something, though. “We need Billy Crystal to Analyze This.” Yes, Dan, I believe we do.
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.