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EYE GLAZE: 60 Hours of Cable News with Walter Shapiro

The Cable News Patrol: My Long National Nightmare Is Over!

5 years ago
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At the finish line, there were no high-school marching bands, no pyrotechnics – not even a perky young TV reporter cloyingly asking the all-purpose how-do-you-feel question. Instead, at 1:26 pm Sunday afternoon, I rapturously luxuriated in a heavenly choir serenading me with the sounds of silence, as a blessed sense of peace washed over my body. After more than 60 hours of eye-glazed communion with the three major cable news networks (enough time to watch every episode from all three seasons of "Mad Men" twice), the television set was mercifully off.

I had set out on this only-mad-dogs-and-Englishmen quest to test whether the human brain could endure a week-long diet of all TV news all the time – and I was searching for the proper punctuation point to end my odyssey in Cableland. I was saddened by watching cable's coverage of the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake degenerate into TV clichés: "Millions of lives are at stake and time is running out. . . .This is a hell on earth. . . . Despite the unbelievably dire situation, there are some miracles providing hope." (Fox News, Saturday night). But I never imagined that on the sixth day of saturation TV coverage, I would actually see a 15-minute round-table offering fresh perspectives on Haiti.

Foreign-affairs columnist Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, hosts an hour-long CNN Sunday show called "GPS" that serves as a reminder of what the kingdom of cable TV might be like if vituperative politics and happy-talk anchors were not the coin of the realm. Not only did Zakaria begin with the tragic history of Haiti that pointed out that "it is the only nation in the world founded by former slaves," but he also reminded CNN viewers of America's long history of sending in the Marines. His panel consisted of three experts on Haiti (book authors Tracy Kidder, Amy Wilentz and Madison Smartt Bell), who sounded thoughtful instead of coming across like they had spent the week hanging out in TV green rooms repackaging the same stale sentiments.

Kidder (who wrote "Mountains Beyond Mountains," a biography of Paul Farmer, a doctor fighting infectious diseases in Haiti) actually had the preternatural self-confidence to utter the three words that are banned from cable TV news: "I don't know." Asked by Zakaria what could be done to prevent Haiti from continuing as an international basket case, Kidder actually contemplated the question (another TV no-no) before quietly responding, "I don't know. I'm not a development expect, but I also don't trust them either." He went on to shrewdly point out that, even before the earthquake, international aid agencies had all but taken over the functions of government in Haiti: "But it's the worst kind of government – no accountability and no coordination."

Worrying that I had either misjudged cable TV or was having an out-of-body experience, I quickly switched channels. MSNBC obliged by quickly offering a programming sequence that buttressed my original conclusions about the lasting mental-health effects of low-calorie cable news. Free-agent major-league shortstop Miguel Tejada, who lives in the Dominican Republic, was interviewed at the border with Haiti, trying to bring food and water for earthquake victims. Asked about how he felt about the tragedy, Tejada said, "It's very sad." This scintillating interview was followed by a brief update on the Massachusetts Senate race: "It started as a runaway, but it is now a nail-biter." This must be a high-demand weekend for manicures since both Fox News and CNN also described the Bay State face-off between Martha Coakley and Scott Brown as a "nail-biter."

Then MSNBC, displaying the global reach of NBC News, switched to Andrews Air Force Base where Barack Obama's plane was shown sitting on tarmac in the rain waiting to fly to Boston for a Coakley rally. Since MSNBC had already reported that the president would be campaigning Sunday afternoon for the beleaguered Democratic Senate nominee, it was a little baffling how viewers might benefit from this dramatic 30-second view of a very wet Air Force One. (Maybe they assumed that Obama was traveling by pogo stick.) Time-wasting pictures like this are, of course, innocuous, even though they contribute to the cable TV version of the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome – 30 minutes after you're through watching these shows, you're still desperately hungry for news.

At least I was, as I finally summoned the courage to reach for the "off" button on my remote. A few minutes later, I was eating brunch at my dining-room table, with the Sunday New York newspapers fanned out in front of me, in a room devoid of a television set. I began with the Sunday comics in the Daily News – and immediately encountered serious attention-span problems as I tried to get through talkative strips like "Doonesbury." The good news: Even after 60 hours of cable TV news, I could still figure out "Beetle Bailey" and "The Family Circus."

Bravely reaching for the New York Times (which in my addled condition was akin to jumping from the multiplication tables to advanced calculus), I picked up the "Week In Review" section. Within 30 seconds (the same time it takes to notice that someone left Air Force One out in the rain), I learned that Google has not resolved its ongoing censorship dispute with China and that Obama wants to levy an excise tax on the 50 largest banks for 10 years. Despite watching cable TV news intently for 60 hours, neither major news story had ever penetrated my consciousness. In fact, I had not a heard a word about a continent called Europe nor a power-keg nation named Pakistan.

At the end of my long cable news nightmare, I realized that there is a societal problem more serious than the curare-tipped ideological invective that is such a prime-time ratings generator for Fox News and MSNBC. And that is that – despite rare exceptions like Fareed Zakaria – cable TV is a major contributor to the dumbing down of the American voter. That is, unless you want to know everything that is humanly conceivable about what Harry Reid supposedly said about Barack Obama.

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!
Filed Under: News Media, Eye Glaze

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