By the time a person hears the news,
it is not news at all, but opinion.
It becomes a message of some kind,
rather than fresh, straightforward news
--Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
… Have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?
As a teenager, Michel believed that suffering
conferred dignity on a person.
Now he had to admit that he had been wrong.
What conferred dignity on people was television
--The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq
[What follows is a meditation on media; more military and politics back tomorrow -- ed.]
Two weekends ago I visited a friend who is a t.v. watcher, and over the course of that weekend I passed before the set for perhaps 30 minutes total, but those 30 minutes reminded me why I do not watch.
First came the superannuated momentous query on the news: "WHAT would turn an Elvis impersonator into a would-be killer?" The mind reels in contemplation of such a question. Before a cutaway to an ad, the voiceover suggested the next feature would be advice to survivors of the Boston bombing. We catch a glimpse of a woman staunchly dispensing heartfelt words from a rehab facility, presumably a victim of some other tragedy: "Don't never give up". But -- is this news?
Earlier, the local news devoted 6 minutes of a 30-minute broadcast to -- the weather. All that is needed in order to know whether to wear one's mac is the 5-day forecast, but instead they must dazzle with all the bells and whistles and Doppler Radar, the "forecaster" (how medieval!) giving his best guess as to how the winds will blow, with his usual 50/50 accuracy rate. [An intelligent friend once observed that he kept the Weather Channel on all day as background, and wasn't sure why it held such a fascination for him.]
Six minutes of weather patterns, while the world turns and events of import are never suggested. We are lucky to get six minutes of international news each night, hence why Lisa stopped watching t.v. news back in college. She witnessed the "Tessification" of the media news with the advent of the dreaded "infotainment" industry.
But even before the degradation that ET ushered in, an absolutely disinterested posture seemed impossible for humans, especially when they've entered the realm of celebrity. When a trusted news reporter like Walter Cronkite grafts his opinion upon his reportage (as he did following his Vietnam visit when he declared that war to be unwinnable), the facts as presented are no longer trustworthy.
I largely stopped watching much television after Hill Street Blues ushered in the use of vertiginous shots to suggest a strained verisimilitude; cinema verite it was not. The static angles of film noir are tolerable but one feels like a seizure victim when the entire program is riddled by close ups and fade outs and a shaky hand; it's exhausting. (Needless to say, classics of the film canon, like "Blair Witch Project", are outre for me.)
Later, was a performance of Otis Redding tunes at the White House hosted by Queen Latifah. Being a Redding fan, I stayed with this program the longest, hoping for some soulful and heartfelt renditions. I entered to hear the underwhelming Justin Timberlake butcher a tune, straining himself beyond all credibililty, lacking an ounce of feeling. He was decked out in a too-tight suit trying to strike a cross between Sinatra (more at Michael Buble) and Daniel Craig's Bond, but he couldn't open the collar to correct effect lest his tats show. It was a truly painful performance.
There was one campy but spirited performance of "Knock on Wood by an older performer, followed by a dismal performance of Redding's anthematic "When a Man Loves a Woman" by a young man who did not appear to have ever loved a woman, who went falsetto when he failed to mine the pathos of the tune. This effort garnered him the requisite "oohs and ahhs," but in fact the performance was another dud. Latifah sang one and hit the notes, but did not inspire. Any day of the week in our town one may hear the angelic and inspired voices of simple church choir members doing a far more credible job of invoking feelings.
Nonetheless, the white people squirmed uneasily, smiled and clapped to some unfelt rhythm. But when Cyndi Lauper began a tune which she could clearly not honor, my hopes for hearing any more singers with feeling were quashed. Lauper's "True Colors" back in the '80's was masterful, but Redding is not her league. Who scheduled this lineup of abysmal failures?
Lastly, I caught a moment of the nighttime soap "The Good Wife", in which actual t.v. interviewer Charley Rose appeared in a cameo on the program doing his interview schtick. I know there is precedent for public personas making appearances on t.v. programs, but this was disappointing. This simulacrum might easily confuse a young person trying to discern fact from fiction.
Charley Rose was great early in his career on late night public t.v., when he provided a forum for people of note to explain their thinking. He was an informed and respectful host who largely took himself out of the equation, but about 20 years ago he was repackaged into the ubiquitous form of the interrupting, "gotcha" interviewer and was no longer unique. No longer what he was, this jump into pure fiction wasn't a tremendous jump for him.
My 30 minutes of t.v. time was a bridge too far.