Well the Swine Flu has, so far, failed to track me down, which is likely because there's more Swine Flu hysteria than actual Swine Flu. The cable news networks have 24-hours of airtime to fill every day, seven days a week. For that I feel sorry for them, and they return the favor by making us feel sorry for ourselves. After all, we pay hefty monthly fees to our cable providers so we can get 500 channels, of which only a half dozen are of any interest to those of us who speak only English. Among those are all the cable news news channels.
Cable news is nothing like the news business I was in before hanging it up. First of all, we didn't try to keep a story alive beyond its natural life. We just reported the damn thing with as little la-de-da as possible. We put the main point(s) right up there in the first paragraph or two so busy readers knew what it was all about and could move on if they weren't interested. Then we proceeded to filled in the pertinent gaps and moved on to the next story.
The nerve center in newsrooms back in those days was the news ticker machine. It would rattle away all day long providing the humdrum news of the day in a dispassionate, fair and balanced manner. Only rarely did the news ticker machine resort to attention getting behavior. When something genuinely important happened, a loud bell inside the machine would issue a series of loud "dings." Just how important the story was dictated how many "dings"
When the ticker machine bell dinged six times everyone in the newsroom rushed to tape, because we knew something on the scale of World War III had just occurred somewhere in the world. The first time I heard those six bells was in 1967 when Israel was attacked from all sides by it's neighbors. I was still in high school back in November 1962, but I am quite sure those bells rang six times when JFK was assassinated. Anyway, that's how, decades ago, we knew there was "breaking news."
After several seconds of your screen going red and flashing a collage of fuzzy, subliminal images of previous disasters, like the Hindenburg exploding into flames, various auto and plane crashes, generic humans running in panic through generic city streets, the news reader finally fills the screen, frowning, clutching a freshly minted script and proceeds to announce something along these lines:
"CNN has just learned that a CEMENT MIXER TRUCK has turned over on I-80 outside Sacramento, California. Early reports are that all east-bound lanes are blocked. Our local affiliate has provided these RAW and UNEDITED aerial images. Sacramento is the state capitol and, I-80 the main east-west artery to this CRITICAL city. There are no reports yet on the condition of the driver, but we are following this BREAKING NEWS closely and will keep you advised as we learn more."
Then if, god help us, it's a slow news day, they will drag the story out in the most minuet detail. By the time they finish squeezing the last drop of trivia out of the accident, America and the world will be in possession of a bushle basket full of utterly useless factoids about everyone involved; the cement company that owned the truck, whether any of their trucks had ever turtled before, what the weather was like, and will be like in the hours ahead, that the driver was not injured, but was VERY, VERY UPSET, that he doesn't blame God for the wreck, but does give God credit for not maiming or killing him, that his wife and children are EVER SO happy he was not hurt, and that they too don't blame God for the accident, but that they do attribute the safe outcome to the same God, and that they take it all as a sign that God has big plans for him. Finally we will learn that road crews say they hope to have I-80 reopened before the start of the evening commute, thereby not only keeping the state capital served by all things automotive, but sparing the "alreadly economically hard-hit state from what MIGHT HAVE BEEN the straw that broke its back."
WHEW! What do CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, and FOX require when they recruit these cable news anchors? From what I can tell the requirements seem to boil down to these:
- If you're a woman, be a blond woman?
- Were you ever the perkiest member of your high school and/or college pep-squad?
- Can you carry on nonstop, circuitous, one-sided conversation with yourself for hours on end without losing the initial story thread?
- Do most of the people who know you consider you a drama queen?
- Can you make every day, commonplace events sound ominous and potentially threatening?
- Can you hperventilate for long periods of time, maintain consciousness and keep talking?- Can you listen to a producer feeding you words through an earpiece, repeat them without missing a beat, and certainly not asking for help:
("Whoa, boys, back up. Repeat that, I didn't get the last part? You know, the part about how flu viruses can ... what was that, masturbates? Oh, oh, mutates..")
- Finally, can you remain awake, perky, alarmist and reasonably coherent for days on end when something big happens -- ala Wolfe Blitzer, the gold standard of cable news perpetual blather and superlative abuse? Have you got the Right Blitzer Stuff?
Look, I'm a life-long news junkie. News to me is like blood to a vampire, or at least it used to be. But now with newspapers headed for the bone yard, and AM radio filled with half-educated right wing Elmer Gantry types, my news fix is coming down to cable news and -- frankly, they're wearing out my "fight & flight" reflex.
After a couple of hours of watching Wolfe or Chris or Keith or any of MSNBC's and CNN's glam gals, I am left feeling as though I'd just spent two days locked up in the White House situation room with John Bolton and Charles Krauthammer.
I don't know who figured that what TV news simply wasn't entertaining enough. And that the solution was to hire method actors to, not just read the news, but act out the full range of human emotions while doing so.