There was a lamb gyro in my hand this afternoon as I entered the cafeteria, a physical manifestation of both an impulse to fill my belly regardless of circumstance and the knowledge that I’d just realized the full possible utility of possessing $4 in Midtown Manhattan. The former consideration was the only one on my mind as I dug in. It was a mediocre sandwich, one that I will probably have again in the near future.
My phone, the only connection to the world of baseball fervor and international politics that I inhabit while perusing the Internet, was downstairs charging. I had nothing to read, and the Moleskine that I use to write stories and dream of possible future life scenarios was downstairs, too. There was no one to talk to, not that I’d talk to anyone other than myself here anyways. The only sound I could hear was the tonal chattering broadcast from the cafeteria speakers. Suzanne Malveaux was slow roasting someone who I shortly realized was Newt Gingrich’s daughter. This pleased me, as Suzanne Malveaux is generally agreeable, and any reason to laugh at Newt Gingrich or his immediate family tickles my fancy immensely. I do not make such habits routine, however, for sanity’s sake. There are four TVs in the cafeteria, and they always show CNN, and it is a crucible of cacophony that I have no interest in navigating.
I cut off my cable a while ago, and I regret little save for the live sports content that I temporarily sacrificed in the name of cost consciousness and content control. Passive daytime news show contamination was, I thought, a possibility that I’d mitigated against. Sadly, I’d failed to account for passive exposure by way of the constant drone in my workplace cafeteria—a place, incidentally, that would otherwise serve as a perfectly acceptable refuge from the desiccation of the cubicle. There was nowhere to go, no place else that I could inhale my gyro in peace. It was raining, and I was stuck watching cable news. I sighed deeply.
What you first notice when resuming major network or cable TV news consumption after time away is that narrative is paramount. There are stories to tell, but there is a singular fable of sorts to tell as well. Each network has a self-generated (or, rather, focus group generated) sense of identity and so the way stories have to fit the narrative they wish to sell to the viewer. It’s no matter if it’s a slow news day or if stories about GOP infighting and the health benefits of grapes are on the same docket, for the question is the same: do they fit the narrative? If the theme of CNN is, say, “we’re keeping you informed by feeding you vaguely on-topic stories in baby food form so you digest them in the least obtrusive and bland way possible,” then the stories share a lack of sordidness and deeper inquiry because that’s what the narrative requires.
The major networks and cable news providers (Fox News and perhaps Al Jazeera excepted) have settled upon a model where there’s not so much a theme pounded at ad nauseam as a need to frame each news cycle around an idea so that it will best capture viewership. Since this cycle turns over in a matter of hours, there’s no coherence possible. They only manage to differentiate themselves through their choice of on-air personalities, specialization through branding (‘Your Campaign Headquarters for 2012’, ‘Award-Winning International Reporting’, ‘Bringing You News From People Like You’, etc.), and assorted gimmicks like fancy touch screens, Special Reports™ that air on weekend nights when no one’s going to watch, and David Gergen. By stridently attempting to create a unique brand while simultaneously maintaining vigil over Nielsen numbers and profit margins, they all end up looking alike, sounding alike, providing the same insipid content, and ultimately harming their own bottom lines. It’s the bastard child of chasing pennies in front of streamrollers and groupthink, and it’s as painful to look at and think about as it sounds.
So I’m sitting there, shoveling lamb meat or its nearest equivalent into my mouth as I cringe, and my memory brings me back to about a month earlier. On a lazy Saturday with no ambitions aside from consumption, I sat down, opened the Newscaster app, and turned to NBC to see if I could tolerate Meet the Press. As a child, I watched Meet the Press voraciously, devouring talking points and the nuggets of knowledge I could glean from Tim Russert’s pointed but ultimately harmless questioning. My sense of humor consisted mostly of doing poor impressions of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It was sad, and it feels that way now, but I was but an unvarnished dork in 1992, a kid with a mockup of SkyDome in his room created from blue chalk (in standard and metric), unaware of the feminine mystique or anything resembling The Cool™.
Carcetti 2016? You know you want to.
It’s twenty years on, and I managed to make it through one six-minute segment before tapping out. I watched two governors, Martin O’Malley of Maryland (aka Carcetti, Motherfucker) and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, trade well-rehearsed barbs in a painfully stilted set-piece that would have passed as poor acting in an election-themed B-movie. My politics are an odd mix of libertarian social ideals, an aversion to poorly crafted bullshit (well-crafted bullshit I can tolerate to a point, as it’s an art and I appreciate the skill and creativity that goes into it) and the socialism of my union organizer grandfather, so I don’t expect much of what I want to hear from just about anyone in authority. Even so, I was aghast at how visceral my disdain for all the participants felt to me. David Gregory managed both petulance and supplication. McDonnell was as slimy and nakedly (nay, cravenly) ambitious as I had left him. My reaction to O’Malley, though, was what surprised me most. Here’s one of the models for my favorite fictional politician of all time, a man whose stated policy platform aligns well with my own preferences, holding court and delivering his lines in a crisp and detached way. So why did I have to fight the urge to throw the remote?
Let’s go a little further down the wormhole to explore how this happened. (I’m still scarfing lamb gyro, though the sandwich is starting to whittle down to a nub, and I’m racing to finish so I can escape CNN’s noxious aura.) Two years ago, I was a staffer on a victorious state Senate campaign. It was a matter of conscience overwhelming preference, as the incumbent Senator was a sleazeball even when measured against the rogues’ gallery of thieves and creeps that New York state politics continues to produce. The work was arduous, involving extensive phone banking, research, speech writing/editing, and driving people around for little to no money. The candidate was a cool guy, and we hung out as he explained his opposition to state subsidized sports complexes and ketchup on anything but fries. I came home frayed each night, but there was also a sense of purpose that kept me in it as summer turned to fall.
The point at which my opinion of the whole process turned was on a Saturday afternoon. I was holding up a sign at a media presser where my candidate (now Senator) received the backing of a somewhat influential city councilman. When the councilman arrived, he wore a pinstriped suit, a shirt with French cuffs and tasteful cufflinks, immaculate imitation alligator shoes, and a tie and handkerchief combo that was unnecessary but elegant. I was suspicious, in part because of his resemblance to a Latino Patrick Bateman, but he seemed genial and genuine enough in passing conversation. Perhaps, I thought to myself, this wasn’t going to be as soul wrecking as I had first supposed.
Then the speeches began, and I instantly shifted from a staffer on a street corner with a mild press presence to a spectator holding a poster with some horrific pun on it at a WWE event. They spoke, and I immediately felt as if I was watching a wrestling promo in action, two men trading congratulatory messages, stating their bullet points of support, bashing their mutual enemy with well-rehearsed gusto. The message was genuine, and yet I could not help but feel the need for a shower. This is what it is, I thought. This is how power works here, this is how communication works in a democracy, this is politics—and I despise it. When election night came, and my candidate reigned victorious, I shook a few hands at the afterparty, grabbed a few bites of food after a 15 hour day, walked to my car and never looked back.
It was that memory that came to mind when watching these governors hold court. People who genuinely care about creating good public policy and exercising political power to do good for people find themselves reduced to cutting glorified episodes of Piper’s Pit to convey a vague semblance of what they’d actually like to carry out. It hurts to watch, and I stopped feeling entertained by the theatrics long ago. That sentiment won’t go away soon, it seems. I felt at once wistful and liberated. I still care, but I can’t make myself feel any passion for a particular politician or ideology. My happiness is too important, and my life too short to expend energy on reading tea leaves. (Though I still find such idle speculation quite entertaining. It’s the histrionics and automated robotics of American political theater that I find tiresome.)
Suzanne, impeccable in speech and appearance as always, had summoned the Gergen and two other talking heads (one a Democrat, one a Republican, because this is CNN and the façade of an agenda-less channel trumps both entertainment value and substance, the narrative devoid of anything remotely interesting whatsoever) to discuss delegate counts and the optics of the continued GOP infighting over the presidential nomination. I had some gyro sauce on my mustache, and so I wiped it off as I arose to escape the cafeteria. As the odious guests shilled for their supper, I sighed and felt a sense of satiation. There was nothing to think about, no feelings of doom or troubled conscience to process. I was out of earshot now, and wouldn’t be coming back for a while. I felt a flush of relief as I retrieved my phone. My Twitter was full of messages about Syria and Iranian aggression and coming sanctions.
So it goes.