Like a lab rat in a maze whose every movement is monitored by psychologists, I want to report back as I stagger to the midway point of my sick-puppy experiment to watch 60 hours of cable TV news in five days. Three days ago I set off as a callow and naive explorer (I could recognize Zbigniew Brzezinski from his Carter administration days but not his daughter, MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski) to probe the heart of darkness known as Cableland, pledging to get all my news from MSNBC, CNN and Fox without any shallow distractions from newspapers or online news websites like Politics Daily.
As I write these words, I feel akin to Winston Smith (George Orwell's "1984") after he was "re-educated" to believe that two plus two equals five. Sleep-deprived, I have lost all interest in leaving my New York City apartment for fear of missing a new poll from the Massachusetts Senate race. I will not say that I have given way to paranoia, but when the battery died on my laptop computer I immediately suspected a global left-wing conspiracy led by Hugo Chavez. When my wife came home from the theater last night and actually had the temerity to try to talk to me without waiting for a commercial break, I snapped at her because she was interrupting the midnight rebroadcast of Sean Hannity. While my nerves are jangled, my mental acuity has miraculously survived the boob-tube ordeal. Although I should confess that when I tried to decompress before sleeping by reading a back issue of The New Yorker, I had trouble sounding out the big words.
When I volunteered for this hazard-pay assignment, I had envisioned a typical news week on cable dominated by sound bite skirmishing from Washington and the crystal ball determination to handicap the 2010 elections 10 months before the voters go to the polls. What I could not possibly have imagined was the devastation from the Haitian earthquake, which is a fight-back-the-tears visual story that television at its best can tell better than print. Since this puckish diary was designed to probe cable TV's contribution to coarsening the national political debate, I will not dwell on the comparative details of each network's Haitian coverage. But it was stunning that CNN Wednesday night -- within the space of just 15 minutes -- managed to span the mawkish depths (Larry King) and the journalistic heights (Anderson Cooper) of the medium.
By managing to reach Port-au-Prince Wednesday morning, Cooper and his CNN crew had most of the day to report and edit stories for his 10:00 p.m. show called Anderson Cooper 360. Produced pieces are a rarity on cable TV today (although beleaguered CNN clings to the vestiges of this proud tradition) because they are much more time consuming and expensive to prepare than live interviews and panel discussions with so-called experts. But editing allows a complex and emotionally dense story to be told clearly without squandering the viewer's time. What will haunt me for weeks was Cooper's tightly produced depiction of the amazing rescue of a 13-year-old girl in a purple shift who had been trapped under concrete, with only one leg protruding, for 18 hours. Afterwards, the girl bravely said in French, "I wasn't scared. I wasn't scared of anything."
In frightening contrast, Larry King built his Wednesday night show around a hitherto underreported and underappreciated aspect of the tragedy -- the emotional reactions of celebrities with ties to Haiti. "With us in the studio here in Los Angeles is the lovely Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon," King proudly announced at the top of the broadcast. "She's a Haitian-born actress who was born in Haiti and has family in Haiti." Things, alas, went downhill from there, including families weeping in the studio because they had no word from missing relatives. At the end of the show, King squeezed in a hurried interview with Haitian-American soccer star Jozy Altidore, currently playing for a team in Hull, England. Asked about his family in Haiti, Altidore replied, "We have our fingers crossed that everything is OK with them." That prompted King to offer the kind of impersonal consolation that Altidore could have easily gotten from a stranger in a pub: "If I can throw in a word for you, don't never give up hope in a situation like this, because they are finding people every day...So never give up hope."
MSNBC understandably devoted much of its Wednesday night primetime programming to earthquake coverage, taking full advantage of its ties to NBC. But MSNBC hosts still found time to play to their liberal base by denouncing the latest outrages from the far right. Please understand: I am appalled by the on-air comments by Rush Limbaugh (claiming that Barack Obama was stressing Haitian relief to burnish his credibility with both the "light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country") and Pat Robertson (blaming the earthquake on God's extremely belated retribution for the 1804 Haitian revolution). But every day -- and I know this is a shocker -- stupid things are said into microphones all over America. Sometimes the wisest thing on a busy news day is simply to ignore the provocations, especially since there is scant crossover viewership between, say, MSNBC and Robertson's "700 Club." But for the ideological warriors at Fox News and MSNBC, the most neglected maxim in the Bible is "turn the other cheek."
In its obsession with Limbaugh and Fox News, MSNBC has come to ape the snide and derisive tone of right-wing talkers, thus creating a ratings-obsessed race to the bottom. Ed Schultz, the proprietor of MSNBC's "The Ed Show," introduced his Limbaugh segment by saying, "In 'Psycho Talk' tonight, the Drugster proves again that he has no shame." While fully acknowledging Limbaugh's legal problems with prescription painkillers, it would be equally factually accurate for a Fox News anchor to refer to David Letterman as "the Adulterer" or to introduce Bill Clinton as the "impeached but not convicted ex-president." On Fox News Wednesday night, Sean Hannity actually did accuse Letterman of (call the lawyers) "taking cheap shots at Sarah Palin." His ironclad evidence that Letterman had violated the rigid strictures of the comic's code: a not-funny clip of Dave claiming that Fox's new slogan post-Palin should be "hair and balanced."
With Harry Reid fading back into merely being a Senate majority leader confronted with a daunting re-election campaign and with the Massachusetts Senate candidates coming across as too bland to be memorable, Palin remains the only political story with...err...traction. Almost 24 hours later, I am still grappling with Glenn Beck's idiosyncratic interview with the new Fox News pundit from Alaska. At times, the hourlong conversation seemed almost as cloying as the webisodes that Rielle Hunter lavished on John Edwards. Fantasizing about a joint appearance on "Saturday Night Live," Beck said to the 2008 vice presidential nominee, "We're both just, you know, schlubs out of no place. And just like all of a sudden, here we are, and we find ourselves in this amazing place."
But by eschewing conventional questions (which with Palin, as Bill O'Reilly learned Tuesday, only produce yawn-inducing answers), Beck may have succeeded in producing grist for a graduate seminar in Sarah Studies. From the moment that he began by reading aloud from his pre-interview journal ("I don't know yet if she's strong enough, if she's well-enough advised, or if she knows she can no longer trust anyone"), Beck made Palin his willing partner in paranoia. Asked if there were anyone whom she could trust other than that vague entity called "the people," Palin replied with seeming honesty, "Outside of the people and outside of my family -- again, it's very, very difficult to find those whom I would trust with my children's life."
While on the subject of major political leaders who came across as lonely and suspicious of others, I cannot resist noting that the Palin interview was punctuated by a commercial for investing in gold (the scaremonger's favorite inflation hedge) narrated by none other than former jailed Watergate conspirator Gordon Liddy ("I got into gold 10 years ago. It was the smartest move I ever made"). Of course, Liddy got into Richard Nixon 40 years ago – and it was probably the dumbest move he ever made.