A Cable News Love Affair
Allow us to introduce our newest writer. Ron Seyb is a Skidmore professor. While his official title is "Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair in Government," we tend to think of him as less a chair and more a recliner. A nice, evenly worn and slightly tattered Lazy Boy. Or so we thought. We heard from him this week, and in a somewhat cryptic e-mail he took umbrage at that characterization. We apologize for the error. We meant to say Barcalounger. But regardless of the kind of furniture he may most channel, we still consider him to be one of the funniest guys around Saratoga.
Tracie Bennett’s uncanny performance as Judy Garland on Broadway in End of the Rainbow prompted me a few months back to watch some of Ms. Garland’s early movies, movies that Ms. Garland made before the pills and alcohol made her look like Norma Desmond after an unfortunate encounter with a badger. One of my favorite of these early Garland movies is the musical Meet Me in St. Louis, in which Garland plays Esther Smith, a young woman who falls in love with “the boy next door” and cannot stop thinking about the World’s Fair that is about to alight in her hometown of St. Louis. In that film’s closing scene, which is set at the long-awaited Fair, Esther is so bedazzled by the lights and the grandeur of the fair that she muses in wonderment, “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live.“
Esther’s statement would have been, of course, more credible if she had not made the specious claim earlier in the film that public transportation made her heartstrings zing. But Esther’s observation about the pride and excitement that is injected into a community when it is slated to host an important event is apt right now because Skidmore College will be the stage this coming Wednesday for a debate between incumbent Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and her Republican challenger, Wendy Long.
I confess that I love candidate debates, and not just because it is my job as a political scientist to love them (A shotgun marriage in which no one wants to claim custody of Dick Morris). I always think that if I watch the candidates closely enough, I may get a glimpse of their Superegos and Ids in a Jacob v. Angel caliber struggle, only the grappling in this instance being more suitable for depiction on “Awkward Family Photos” than in a Rembrandt painting. Perhaps the only thing I enjoy more than watching candidate debates is watching the cable news commentary following the debates.
I know from my conversations with members of polite society that my ecumenical approach to cable news is both atypical and even unpopular. I am supposed to pledge my unshakeable fidelity to my preferred cable news network and then defend this choice with the same ferocity with which Queen Elizabeth I defended the British coast against the Spanish Armada. But I find all three of the cable news networks to be so meretriciously entertaining that I just cannot stop myself before I tweet Shepard Smith again about his resemblance to Billy Zane in Titanic.
Now, I recognize that MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News (Which medieval physicians referred to as Choleric, Phlegmatic, and Cacophony of the Choleric, respectively) are not the only cable networks that cover presidential debates. There is, of course, C-SPAN, which covers politics in the same way that a toll booth camera covers family vacations: You may get a glimpse of some water wings pressed up against a back window after about 17 hours of viewing, but during that time you will have also lost your will to live. C-SPAN’s “We Will Broadcast a Colonial Butter Churning Contest If It Is in a Swing State” approach to covering politics certainly gets rid of the “media filter” about which so many politicians complain. But it replaces it with coverage that unapologetically flouts the Steve Martin axiom that “When you tell a story, here’s a good idea: have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.” There is also Al Gore’s retirement avocation, Current TV, which has the disadvantage of boasting a set that looks like it is in Wayne Campbell’s basement but the advantage of dangling the hope that Al Gore might once again start talking about the altitude in Denver in the same tone and with the same cadence that Rutger Hauer used when he was about to go on another killing spree in Blade Runner. I have found, however, that watching Current TV for too long makes me feel like I have just spent several hours watching a group of survivalists huddled in their bunker arguing about who needs to surface to get more Go-Gurt.
It is hence the three cable news networks to which I continue to gravitate. Whether it is Wolf Blitzer on CNN screeching, “It’s Debate Night in America!” like Lear on the heath, the MSNBC debate panel skipping the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stage of denial and going straight to anger about President Obama’s performance in the last debate, or a phalanx of Fox News commentators telling me that the American people prefer liberty to everyday low prices (a contestable proposition), I always leave my encounter with the cable community feeling like I have won a Shirley Jackson choreographed lottery.
Cable news commentary presents the best modern example of what Vernon Louis Parrington referred to during the Gilded Age as ”The Great Barbecue” of American politics. It reminds us that invective and politics have always gone together like, to paraphrase the immortal Caillat, Marley and reggae. Even I must concede, however, that what can be perversely entertaining can also be profoundly distracting. I know that I cannot indulge in too much cable news without losing my purchase on what is important and what is trivial. In the “sound and fury” of cable news there often is nothing, and while nothing can be a source of respite and even creativity, it can also be a source of disorientation and anomie. I do not want, as my mother-in-law once said after she signed up for a senior citizen trip to Branson, Missouri, to “become what I loathe.” Then again, everyone needs a little touch of self-loathing in the night.
ON THE WIRE