WHAT WENT WRONG?
Somebody must have told the media moguls that America can’t get enough of bad news to satisfy their thirst for horror or need to feel pity for the less fortunate. That’s all you hear, from Fox News to PBS, a dirge of misery and hopelessness for those afflicted with Russian missiles, viral plagues, famines in Africa, the plight of the Tigrayans, the pitiful state of the displaced in Syria, bankruptcy in Lebanon You name it, there’s hurt there. Every dark corner is lurking with desperate faces, sunken eyes, pleading hands. The cameras are always there to take pictures and broadcast them over and over until you sink down in your easy chair and go totally numb. As if that were not cruelty enough to the public, you have the annual spate of Christmas stories, most of them so smarmy you can’t watch for more than a few minutes before looking for murder stories, war documentaries, anything to escape from the torture of repetition and hypocrisy.
There’s no effort made to get beyond the cliches of TV rhetoric, the inane formulas meant to jerk awake a nodding viewer who has simply burned out and can’t feel a thing anymore. But if no one is reading anymore, why not keep saying the same thing until it drills down into the quick of the brain and sounds like your first grade teacher droning on about the alphabet. No wonder I spent half of my days as a child standing in the hallway of my school chatting with the janitor as he pushed his broom past me. There was a thin tang of cheap whiskey on his breath as he sighed and shook his head at my stubbornness. “You’ll never learn, will you kid!” he might say by way of chit chat. An announcer on the evening news should break in and say the same thing to the slumbering millions no longer watching a reporter dodging bullets or the debris of a hurricane, or the wails of misery in an orphanage somewhere in flood-torn Pakistan.
I was always reassured to hear Walter Cronkite say, “And that’s the way it is” as he signed off from another edition of CBS News. “Good night Chet, Good night Dave” said the earnest and sometimes eloquent Huntley and Brinkley news team on NBC. They were print journalists, not third-rate hawkers of the nightly headlines, the ones that had been scrubbed clean by senior editors, before being released to the airwaves for the public’s slumbering consumption. Most of my friends, and members of my family, don’t watch the news anymore. They would rather watch re-runs of “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” maybe even “Sex and the City” for some bit of humor. I can’t imagine office workers at the water cooler passing along the latest scoops from last night’s broadcast. Who cares?
Which may be a good thing, come to think about it. If the news no longer carries much authority in its pronouncements, maybe we’ll pick up a book and try to get lost in a bit of suspense before bedtime. When Brinkley remarked that the half-hour news slot at NBC had been hacked down to twenty-three minutes to make room for ads, I was surprised. He was bitter, though he kept that vague smile on his face as he spoke those words. He had a good job, after all, and was living well on his paycheck. I heard from other sources that the TV news managers called the news the “news hole,” around which were piled all the advertising you could squeeze into those half-minute slots. I can recall the old Alka-Seltzer ads with prose that was far more lively and humorous than the nasal drone of the so-called coverage of current events. “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!” and “Where’s the beef?” were prize winning one-liners that made you look forward to a mild feast of punning and hyperbole every few minutes. But the managers of our air waves got rid of that gift of gab and replaced it with empty promises and tedious repetition of dubious claims about wonder drugs.
In a way, Trump’s hold upon blue-collar Americans was that he could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge with his golden tongue. He was a potent salesman and can slap an epithet onto a political rival or enemy and it would generally stick. When his magic began to fade, “Sleepy Joe” Biden didn’t work anymore. It slid off him and left him standing, telling the truth in his monotone voice. But if you listened, you heard faint echoes of Whitman and Emerson, stuff about the dinner tables he passed each night on the Amtrak train back to Delaware. He imagined he heard his own dad worrying about paying the bills, or his mother fretting about the cost of ground meat at the supermarket. It made sense; something real about his observations seeped down into those plain-spoken sentences. It made me remember his comments, which scattered about in his campaign speeches, and sometimes even haunted me as I thought of the old America he embodied. He understood the culture of rowhouses, the tedious downward spiral of workers in America as they tried to stretch their paychecks until the next payday.
I remember keenly my father saying once that he paid twenty-five hundred dollars for our rowhouse in Philly from money he made playing penny-ante poker on the troop ship headed home at the end of World War II. He sold all his hoarded cigarette packs to desperate soldiers who couldn’t get through a night of withdrawals without forking up a dollar for a ten-cent pack of Lucky’s. He dumped out his money onto my grandmother’s table and my mother gasped at the sight of so much wealth. He was part of the greatest generation, the heroic soldiers who fought the monsters of Germany and Japan. His story was being told all over America in Hollywood films with handsome young men charging the enemy and winning every assault. He could do no wrong, my dad. He wasn’t much of a parent as I grew up, but he was a career man who kept climbing the rungs of the government’s ladders. He was a believer, a disciple of Herbert Hoover, a fervent anti-unionist who had refused Social Security when he was given the choice of taking home all of his salary or putting a little aside for his old age. He basked in national approval, and no matter how ruthless Allen Dulles and his brother John Foster became as guardians of freedom, he was there, eager to carry out his duty as a veteran. Even the imperial wars the U.S. began to wage as the heir to the British Empire didn’t dissuade him or shake his faith in the new superpower.
The Fifties was the era of William H Whyte’s “organization man,” the guy who gladly executed every demand of his bosses because he was such a fervent accolade of the federal will. And somehow all things corporate were part of that compact with the ordinary citizen, who put his trust in Washington and the lords of capitalism. Money solved every problem, and if you were in any way sucklng on the federal tit, you were clearly ahead of the game. So the TV learned how to appeal to this credulity and naïve faith and when the medium reached the pinnacle of success, it no longer had to provide the truth about how America was being run in the newly minted Atomic Age. The womb of federal power was incubating the real enemies of democracy in the form of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, the new gangster class running drugs in the major cities, the monopolizing of agriculture in fewer hands, the growing power of Big Pharma. The cutting edge of truth had grown dull and what took its place, slowly and inexorably, was the new strategy of misleading, covering up, blurring boundaries, as in the conduct of the Vietnam War and the art of disinformation practiced by the Pentagon.
Without realizing it, the blue-collar citizen had been disenfranchised and set adrift in an age that concentrated all its favors and promotions on the college-educated. Manual labor was out, and before long, the computer-trained were in. But with this shift in priorities on what mattered in America, the university could lop off the teaching of ancient history, the classical languages, ethics, morality, and all the other virtues that once represented the “better angels” of the republic. Money was the thing; faculties became mere rank and file grunts in the academic microcosm run by the business class. When culture shrinks, so does the need to maintain any sort of awareness of the general public. Papers began to fail, the digital revolution promised twenty-four news of the world, but what wasn’t quite clear was how to fill this vast time span with real news. Nothing was really important except the emotional appeal of suffering and despair of those who didn’t benefit from the vast resources of the American way of life. And the government that defended and protected it. Hence, the news as a broken record, and the political life of the nation lived out in rhetorical wars of words of the two major parties. Stagnation in Congress, four-year long campaigns to take power, and of course the rigging of appointments like the seats of the Supreme Court. No wonder we yawn, and look for distraction where we can find it. And fall victim to the spells cast by hawkers of extremism on both the right and the left.
When the news gets boring, it means something is happening that may not be in our best interest. Time to wake up and consider what we have lost in the way of actual freedom.