Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"Uncle Grumpy on: Cable News

Ladies and gentlemen. the irascible, the opinionated, and the not always wrong, Uncle Grumpy.

It was the darndest thing I ever heard. I was watchin’ The McLaughin Group – which I know, technically, is not “cable news”, but its performing style brands it as a Fellow Traveler.

McLaughlin’s panelists, or guests, or whatever, are yammerin’ away about some issue or other, when suddenly, this booming voice interrupts, stoppin’ the crosstalk dead in its tracks. It’s John “Boom Boom” McLaughlin himself. And here’s what he says. This is classic. You gotta hear this.

McLaughlin says – concernin’ whatever issue they were yammerin’ about:

“The question is not, ‘Is it good for the Left?’ or ‘Is it good for the Right’? The question is, ‘Is it good for our show?’”

John McLaughlin said that on television. I heard it.

I don’t know why he said that. It’s like he was deliberately blowin’ his brains out in front of the cameras. Suicide by Truth. His panel looked shocked. His pronouncement was never followed up. What could they say?

“You’re right, Mr. McLaughlin. We’re exploiting this issue – and every issue for that matter – for ratings, which translates into profits. Let’s face it. We may look like a news and information program, but we’re actually an entertainment program, masquerading as something ‘important’.”

“Bottom line? We’re in it for the money.”

“Oh, and it’s good being on TV. It boosts our book sales and speaking engagement fees.”

“Plus, we like being on TV.”

As far as I know, McLaughlin never blurted anything of the nature again. The “Truth Door” slammed shut. Why? Because the truth would end cable news as we know it. They’d have to change their networks’ motto to:

“Pretending to Matter for Entertainment and Cash.”

I know cable news is as bad for you as a giant bag of Cheetos, and equally as nourishing. The only difference is, well, there’s two of them. One is: After eating a giant bag of Cheetos, you have orange crumbs clingin’ to your fingers and all over your face. And Number Two: Cheetos doesn’t lie about what it is. Cheetos lays it on the line:

“We’re crap, but we’re tasty.”

Cable news is nowhere near that honest.

“So what?”, you say. If a certain type of show is crap, don’t watch it. Case closed. The trouble is, I do watch it. I can’t help myself. I can’t blame the product, of course. It’s my fault for consumin’. I watch cable news because I want to, and I’m disgusted with myself for doin’ it. I just wish they’d make the shows better, so I could feel a little less terrible about watchin’ ‘em. Is that too much to ask?

It’s not their news anyway, goldarnit. The news is “what happened”. It belongs to all of us. What gives cable news the right to manipulate our news for their profit?

Example of the problem?

Chris Matthews. The best of the bunch. (By “calling out” the best, understand that what I’m sayin’ is, the rest of ‘em are the same, only worse.)

Chris Matthews fools himself every day.

“I’m a newsman.”

No, you’re not. You’re a news star. You, the “cheeks” guy from Meet The Press, Brian pretty-face from The Evening News, you’re as famous as the people you cover, probably more so. You’re in show biz, Chris. You know how you know you’re in show biz? Real newsmen don’t go to work wearin’ make-up. I mean, the women do, but you know what I’m sayin’. No question, cable news – all TV news – is a star-driven show-biz gig.

More self-delusion. Chris Matthews recently talked on his show about the Democratic campaign operatives “playing the refs.” “Playin’ the refs” is when one side rails against the “egregious fouls” committed by their opponents, so the referees will sympathize with their complaints and more carefully scrutinize “the other side.” In Matthews’ analogy, the cable news commentators are the “refs” the operatives are “playing”. Only one problem with that analogy.

It’s wrong.

Cable news commentators are not referees.

Here’s how referees themselves describe the ideal official. As the game’s bein’ played, the referee, at their best, is…

Invisible.

The “refs” job is to make the calls. They never impose their presence on the game. The game is the thing; he “refs” are the guys who make the thing run smoothly. It’s never about the “refs”. It’s always about the game.

Any of this description fit Chris Mathews’ behavior? Or Keith Olbermann’s? Or O’Reilly’s? Or Hannity’s? Or “Morning” Joe’s? You think, judgin’ by their performance, that the goal of these Jaspers is to be invisible?

Cable news anchors are not referees. While coverin’ the game of politics, these media stars, are engaged in a game of their own – the “Ratings Game” – which runs at the same time as the game they’re coverin’.

“Everybody knows that, Uncle Grumpy.”

They know it, but these Bohunks do everything they can to make you forget it. Like hypnotists, they wave their hands in front of your eyes, purring,

“It’s the news.”

Wake up! It’s a television show!

Back to Matthews. The brightest. The cleverest. The most decent. The most knowledgeable. The most dedicated. The most sincere.

His only problem?

Chris Matthews is on television.

(Walter Cronkite was on television too, but in his day, the network’s news division was not expected to be profitable. Now it has to be. That difference changes everything.)

Chris Mathews’ fondest wish is to stay on the air. Hey, it’s America – that’s his right. But what does it mean, “Chris Matthews wants to stay on the air”? It means, up to the point where Matthews draws the line:


“Whatever it takes.”

That’s what’s different. No longer do news shows have a single objective. Now, there are two. Reporting the news. And stayin’ on the air.

What’s Chris Matthews’ “hook” for turnin’ Hardball into Must See TV? The electric enthusiasm of a junkie. Chris Matthews – no question – is addicted to politics. In the commercials for his show, he says, “I love it!” about politics, like he’s talking about ice cream, or football. Or heroin. For cryin’ out loud, the last segment of his show’s called “The Politics ‘Fix’!”

What’s wrong with bein’ passionate about politics? Nothin’. But to stay “hot” and interesting, Matthews focuses on the “horse race” aspect, not the policies, showcasin’ the excitin’ and ever-changin’ over the static and the terminally dull.

“Hey, it’s a show, Baby! The action’s in the action. Who put their foot in their mouth? How much money did they raise? Who’s ahead in the polls?”

And who are the guests invited to “rate” this “horse race”? Pundits. Partisans. Political operatives. Plus, hosts of other news shows on the same network, in a gesture of transparent cross-promotion. (To paraphrase the great Ed Grimley, ”That’s rather sad, I must say.”)

What kinds of questions are the guests asked? Predictable questions, easily parried by memorized answers. Ever see anyone on a cable news show take a moment to think? They don’t have to. They’re Talking Robots. Don’t look to cable news for illumination. You’ll never hear anything new.

And when a good and honest man like Chris Matthews tries to be a responsible reporter? What happens – as he’s done on occasion – when Chris ventures more deeply, ferreting out contradictions and challenging inconsistencies?

He can’t pull it off. Why? Because, the way cable news shows are structured, Chris Matthews is the host, and his guests are guests. A “host” doesn’t go after their “guest”. It’s not good manners. Pushin’ too hard offends the “host-guest” relationship.

I once Chris Matthews go after a female guest, whose position was a mess of contradictions, misstatements and mistakes. He pushed and he pushed, trying to get her to concede she was wrong. And then he stopped. Why? Because One: You don’t attack a girl. And Two: You don’t beat up on a guest. (Unless that’s the “hook” or your show.)

I hate to come down on one guy, especially the best guy. They all have the same problem. With their primary objective being stayin’ on the air, the shows have to make their product – in this case, the news – as entertaining as possible. This inevitably leads to serious conflicts of interest.

Here’s a big one. Maybe the biggest. One way to make a show entertaining is to tell a compelling story. Or, if you don’t have one that day, to fashion the story you do have into as compelling a configuration as possible?

“Hillary’s bein’ pushed around by the Big Boys to get out of the race.”

“Obama’s a tsunami that can’t be stopped.”

Good stories. Very compelling. But what if they’re not accurate? And what if – and here’s my big point – by showcasin’ those stories in “as compelling a configuration as possible”, you bring about a change in the electorate, first, in their opinions and then, in their voting patterns?

Now, cable news isn’t just reporting the story, or even commenting on the story, they’re creatin', manipulatin' and influencin' the story. Couldn’t happen?

The New Hampshire Primary.

Think about it. Just possibly, by merely engagin’ in an effort to entertain, cable television could be changin’ the news.

I’m out of gas. Hey, Nephew, can I come back tomorrow?

EARL: I guess so.

Thanks. I’m just gettin’ started.

5 comments:

Michael said...

Wow. How terrible. Don't you miss the good old days with newspaper publishers such as William Randolph Hearst or the late 1700's when newspapers were created to promote a political point of view?
Michael

Beth said...

Yes! Yes! Uncle Grumpy is 100% right about this one! Thank you, Uncle Grumpy, for telling it like it is.

Arun Kumar said...

Um, I don't think Unc was talking about the 'good old days' Michael, just how things aren't going the way they should today.

Earl Pomerantz said...

You said it, Arun. You don't enornerate what's wrong now by the even worse standards of the past. That's just an excuse for lettin' bad things happenin' now off the hook.

Thanks for backin' me up. You're a good egg.

Uncle Grumpy.

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