I have been apartment-bound at home in Manhattan for the last four weeks with my left leg in a bright red cast (you can now choose from 12 designer colors) recuperating from successful Achilles tendon surgery. Unlike Jimmy Stewart in "Rear Window," I have been unable to find a good real-life murder to divert me. (Just my luck that New York City's crime rate is way down). So to preserve my sanity, I decided that I needed a mission as ambitious as cooking Julia Child recipes for 365 straight days and as foolhardy (and deleterious to my health) as eating non-stop fast food for a month.
The obvious answer was staring at me in the reflection from my little-used 42-inch TV screen: I would devour cable news for 12 hours a day for a week, leaving barely enough time for eating, sleeping and writing a diary of my eye-glazed impressions.
While I am normally a permissive fellow, the rules that I would impose upon myself would be rigid. My time would be evenly split among CNN, Fox News and MSNBC as I varied the programming on a daily basis. These three networks would be my only news sources as I avoided newspapers (sob), news Web sites like Politics Daily (double sob) and any other television or radio programming. If cable TV can't give me the world in 720 long minutes, then what is CNN doing claiming to be "the worldwide news leader"?
What adds a frisson of novelty to my cockamamie couch-potato quest is that I never watch cable TV news or even network news. (Is David Brinkley still on?) Okay, as a political columnist, I occasionally turn on cable TV for live news events like Chris Dodd's withdrawal announcement last week. But I scrupulously avoid the talking-head instant analysis believing that (in a variant of Gresham's Law) predictable commentary drives any original thought out of my brain.
This is not an exaggeration – I would not recognize Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann if they strolled into my apartment arm-in-arm. Alas, the early days of CNN are unavoidably etched in my brain, although I have considered going to a memory clinic to try to erase Larry King. My objection to cable news is not ideology (I shun MSNBC as assiduously as I avoid Fox News) but inefficiency. Compared to online news Web sites, TV seems as slow as employing a town crier. And while television beats newspapers when it comes to visuals, I can exaggerate my you-are-there excitement as I watch a freezing cable reporter stand in front of the White House or the Capitol.
I knew that I had entered a bellicose kingdom called Cable-land Monday morning at 7:45 when I switched on MSNBC and the first words that I heard were "Negro dialect" and "you're accusing me of being intellectually dishonest." The speaker, angrily responding to unexplained accusations, was MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell, who in a prior incarnation had been an aide to cerebral New York Sen. Pat Moynihan.
O'Donnell's opening remarks about beleaguered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were good preparation for a 12-hour day of combat in the ideological zone. Then, after a feisty interview with former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, I heard conservative Pat Buchanan make one of those mind-boggling, fact-free predictions that have been an attention-getting specialty on television since the early days of "Crossfire." According to Buchanan (who is ever so close to Barack Obama), the Democrats would abandon health-care reform in panic if Republican long-shot Scott Brown won next week's Massachusetts Senate election to fill Ted Kennedy's seat.
By 7:55, after just 10 minutes of "Morning Joe," my nerves were completely jangled – and I hadn't even had my coffee yet. The MSNBC show did devote 45 minutes to interviewing John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the authors of "Game Change," the book that has Harry Reid probably wishing for the swift death of the publishing industry. Little did I know, still sleepy at 8:45, that "Morning Joe" would be the intellectual high point (and "intellectual" is defined broadly) of my day in front of the boob tube.
Far more typical of my viewing day was watching a generic anchor like Heidi Collins preside over "CNN Newsroom" from 10:00-11:00. While CNN to its enduring credit did run traditional news stories (using old-fashioned techniques like reporting and editing), these interludes of well-produced journalism were marred by an alarmist tone reminiscent of the killer-salad-bars features on local news during sweeps week. Collins asked ominously, "Are we headed for $3-a-gallon gas again?"; announced that the housing market is "still pretty scary"; and brooded aloud that the sub-freezing temperatures in Florida would drive up citrus prices. (CNN weatherman Rob Marciano veered off message by responding in a reassuring tone, "Is it catastrophic? Probably not.")
But the dominant story for Collins and virtually everyone else I saw on cable news (with the conspicuous exception of Glenn Beck) was "Reid's Racial Remark" as the CNN graphic delicately put it. In fact, cable played it up with a monomania reminiscent of the days when William Randolph Hearst sounded the drums that led to the Spanish-American War. It is one thing for an old-time newspaper editor like Perry White, Clark Kent's boss at the Daily Planet, to bellow, "Tear up the front page!" But no newspaper would dare do what cable news does routinely regardless of time slot or network. And that is to run the same story again and again with different anchors and guest pundits (aka political "strategists") repeating the same predictable partisan talking points until devoted viewers start shedding IQ points like dandruff.
No matter how often I hit the clicker button to change channels, I kept getting a Reid repeat. There would be a news anchor like CNN's Collins introducing a segment by solemnly declaring, "Republicans want him to step down. Democrats want to move on." This would be immediately followed by an interview with a Republican using the magic phrase "double standard." On Fox News, mid-day anchors like Trace Gallagher would play both parts, promising "a fair and balanced view on whether there is a double standard for Democrats." But invariably this would serve as a cue to run a 2002 clip of defrocked GOP Senate leader Trent Lott publicly praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist campaign for president. Then a Democratic mouthpiece like Lanny Davis on MSNBC would (shocking revelation ahead) praise Reid's character: "He's a good man with a good heart." And so it goes and goes and goes.
Just when I began to wonder whether I could make my 12-hour goal without resorting to underhanded gambits like sleeping in front of the TV with the sound on mute, I was revitalized by my first encounter ever with Glenn Beck. With his buzz cut and his chalk board, the Fox News anchor made me feel like I had been transported back to seventh grade with a manic social studies teacher who was inventing his own curriculum. I will admit that I was rather stunned by Beck's flimflam mastery of false parallels as he somehow likened Barack Obama to Hugo Chavez. But I loved Beck's personal sound effects from his "blehs" to his "yada yadas" as he mocked everyone to the left of Ron Paul. Beck was such an electric performer that I totally ignored the Fox News crawl until I looked down while a picture of Mao was on the screen and was jolted by the chyron wording "denied using steroids." The Fox ticker was, of course, referring to Mark McGwire, he of the 70 home run record.
My Monday ordeal ended by watching the 11 p.m. repeat of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. While I was impressed by her brio (unlike most people on television, she actually seems to be enjoying herself) and delighted by her faculty-lounge word choice (who else on television uses phrases like "skill set"?), I was disappointed by her ideologically predictable roster of targets: Monday's rogue's gallery included Sarah Palin, Liz Cheney, Republican foes of Harry Reid, the tea-party movement and, yes, Richard Nixon.
As I began rattling off my initial critique of Maddow to my wife, Meryl, I discovered that she was a secret fan of the MSNBC host and was quite vehement in her defense. This domestic tiff just demonstrates how easily the partisan battles on cable TV news can spill over to the home front. And I still have four days and 48 hours to go.
Day 1: A New Survivor Show: Watching a Week of Cable News and Living to Tell
Day 2: The Cable News Patrol: Rounding Up the Usual Suspects and Subjects
Day 3: The Cable News Patrol: Sound Bite Skirmishing Silenced (Mostly) by Real Life Tragedy
Day 4: The Cable News Patrol: Glenn and Rachel Become My New Best Friends
Day 5: The Cable News Patrol: My Long National Nightmare Is Over!