On Saturday, January 4, 2014, Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the eponymous MSNBC show, began her broadcast with a sober announcement:
Without reservation or qualification, I apologize to the Romney family. Adults who enter into public life implicitly consent to having less privacy. But their families, and especially their children, should not be treated callously or thoughtlessly. My intention was not malicious, but I broke the ground rule that families are off-limits, and for that I am sorry.
Oh, dear. What happened? Well, a week earlier Harris-Perry had invited a group of comedians onto her show, in an attempt to “look back in laughter” at the year gone by. Among other things, Harris-Perry thought it would be fun for the comedians to take a glance at “a number of photos that caught our attention over the course of the year” and provide whimsical captions for them.
One of the photos that had apparently done the trick was an image of Mitt Romney as paterfamilias, posing with his extended family of grandchildren. The twist was that one of said grandchildren is an adopted African American child—a solitary figure of color stranded in a sea of ultrawhite Mormon family togetherness. It was the sort of scene that seemed to call out for mischievous comment, and Harris-Perry and her panel wasted little time obliging.
“One of these things is not like the others,” said actor Pia Glenn. Comedian Dean Obeidallah added, “I think this picture is great. It really sums up the diversity of the Republican Party, the RNC. At the convention, they find the one black person.” Harris-Perry, apropos of God knows what, mused about a future tryst between Romney’s adopted grandchild and North West, daughter of pop culture icons Kanye West and Kim Kardashian: “Can you imagine Mitt Romney and Kanye West as in-laws?”
No, but it doesn’t take a genius to imagine what happened next—a fierce derecho of outrage from conservatives.
So, to put a stop to the furor, Harris-Perry submitted herself to the mercy of her viewers and apologized. And this was no ordinary apology; she didn’t simply treat the Romney segment as an order of old business and move on to the day’s new quotient of overwrought liberal political comment. Instead, she did something that no one on television is permitted to—least of all, it seems, the purveyors of cable-ready punditry from fixed ideological vantage points. Melissa Harris-Perry took a time-out from her network’s perpetual certainty to survey the implications of her regrettable actions. She became self-aware, on the air.
It was like watching someone describe an out-of-body experience, a moment in which she had become completely unmoored from the sturdy coordinates of her public identity. Like a fallen penitent in a Hawthorne story, Harris-Perry worried over the unthinkable character of her trespass, seeming to marvel at the strange utterances that had unaccountably issued forth from her sinful mouth. At bottom, the apology amounted to a plea to her viewers to see her as she now saw herself: a raw, bewildered soul who had somehow allowed herself to become disconnected from her best intentions. “Given my own family history,” she said, “I’d identified with that picture, and I intended to say positive and celebratory things about it. But whatever the intent was, the reality is that the segment proceeded in a way that was offensive.” She admitted to using “poor judgment.” She castigated herself for “suggest[ing] that interracial families” were “deserving of ridicule.” Because why would she do that? (She is, after all, the founder of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South, tasked with the specific mission of “mov[ing] beyond the black/white paradigm in the study of race.”) By the one-minute mark, Harris-Perry broke down completely and wept, rackingly, at the memory of someone she didn’t recognize occupying her body and using her voice to undermine her life’s work.
Still—a caption contest? With comedians permitted to speak “off the cuff”? How did this segment even air? The concept is as cheap as they come—equal parts TMZ cruft and Comedy Central Roast debauch. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against cheap concepts. But wasn’t Harris-Perry—Duke PhD, poli-sci professor, published author—cut from a different cloth? Thought-leader cloth, even? Was there ever a moment, as Harris-Perry first answered the call to cable service and imagined what her show would be like, that she so much as considered the possibility of staging such a display? Surely not. This was not how things were supposed to go.
So what happened to Melissa Harris-Perry? Cable news is what happened to Melissa Harris-Perry.
Your Brain on Cable
As far as I know, when the American Psychiatric Association revised their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, they made no mention of the psychological and cognitive impairments associated with prolonged exposure to cable television news. They failed to consult with me, anyway, and that’s a shame, because I have become an inadvertent expert in the field. I’ve spent many years working in a newsroom in which multiple televisions blared their inanities in my direction, and I’ve composed countless online roundups of the vile distortions of consensual reality known in Washington as the “Sunday Shows.” Lately, though, my employers have mercifully instituted an office-wide policy of putting the workday’s unceasing torrent of televised political blather on mute. And having made something of a recovery, I can appreciate what I was slowly becoming.
Some of the symptoms that present themselves immediately are increased agitation and irritability, an uptick in outbursts of anger and agony, and the tendency to lapse into a prolonged reverie in which you wait—and hope—to find fresh outrage in whatever it is that Mark Halperin is about to tell Joe Scarborough. You experience a period of depression, in which you contemplate the strange and inconsequential things that the talking heads obsess over, followed by a period of panic, in which you wonder why you aren’t also similarly obsessing. You do antisocial things, like watch The Five. And with each passing moment, you feel yourself becoming less intelligent. Your brain basically sizes up cable news the same way it would any addictive substance. “Oh,” it thinks to itself, “this is how it’s going to be then, from now on? I suppose I’ll need to make some adjustments.”
The good news for an audience member is that you can change the channel any time you want, and switch over to a show about people bidding on the contents of long-forgotten storage units. The producers of cable news don’t get that choice. They’re mired in the stupidity, to the extent that it seems to rewrite their DNA. Cable news has produced a lot of human wreckage, and you needn’t dip too far back into the murky past to remember the carnage.
Why think when you can feel? Why have simple emotions, when high dudgeon and lusty outrage offer such heroic highs?
Sometimes, the stupidity emerges out of situations that seem so benign that you come away wondering just how, and when, everything took a bad turn. Last August, the well-respected Julia Ioffe was invited on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss president Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Ioffe, having spent three years in Russia as a Moscow correspondent, was a prudent “get” at the time—she had every reason to expect that her analysis would be met with respect. But that’s the thing: it wasn’t. Ioffe ended up quibbling with O’Donnell over his contention that the Putin regime was “in complete control of the outcome” when renegade NSA analyst Edward Snowden ended up at Sheremetyevo airport. Ioffe offered an objection, pointing out that O’Donnell was drastically overstating Putin’s omnipotence. For that crime, O’Donnell railroaded her with sarcastic, demeaning harangues, and never let her explain herself.
The next day, Ioffe retreated to her perch at The New Republic to finally get a “word in edgewise.” There, she pointed out that O’Donnell “did exactly the same shit Russians did to me when I was in Russia”:
They assumed that the U.S. and its government was one sleek, well-functioning monolith, that Obama was omnipotent, and that everyone in the world, including other important (and nuclear!) world leaders, act and must act as Russia demands it should, using Russian foreign policy calculus, and with only Russian interests in mind.
Sound ridiculous? Believe me, it sounds just as insane in reverse. The problem is that this was not in the ranting comments section, but was coming from the host of a prime time, national television show.
Why even have an expert in Russia on, if you’ve no plan to honor her expertise?
Or take, as another bathetic example, Harris-Perry’s predecessor in MSNBC apologia, Martin Bashir. Last November, Bashir became greatly aggrieved when Sarah Palin—who by this time had long since reclined into the comfortable embrace of nonentity-ness—glibly characterized the national debt as slavery. Bashir took it upon himself to lecture the absent Palin about the “barbaric history” of slavery, reading at length from the diary of a slave owner named Thomas Thistlewood. There was one part of the diary that Bashir believed would make a particularly thrilling point: apparently one of the punishments meted out to the misbehaving human chattel at the Thistlewood estate involved forcing the slave to consume human fecal matter. But even this wasn’t shocking enough to provide Bashir with the sort of self-satisfaction his dudgeon demanded. “If anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood,” Bashir declaimed, “[Palin] would be the outstanding candidate.”
I’m sorry, what now? Was there no one who thought that segment was going to be a bad idea? Bashir was made to humble himself in an ensuing broadcast: “I deeply regret what I said, and I have learned a sober lesson in these last few days: that the politics of vitriol and destruction is a miserable place to be, and a miserable person to become.”
Sound familiar? But even these extreme shows of contrition couldn’t rescue Bashir’s cable-hosting career; in December he tendered his resignation to the MSNBC brass. One can only hope that he’s now better able to recognize the reflection greeting him in the mirror each morning.
And then there is the curious case of Jon Meacham, elite television news historian par excellence. At the end of January, all of Washington was humming the buzzy narratives extruded from president Barack Obama’s State of the Union oration. A particular meme stuck out: Obama had made it clear that if he could not get the lycanthropic House of Representatives to even consider participating in the policy-making process, then he would take “steps without legislation” and find work-arounds, including the issuing of executive orders.
This announcement prompted a great deal of pearl-clutching in front of the cable monitors. The keepers of our cable discourse were absolutely persuaded that Obama’s proposal betokened a tragic breakdown in the separation of powers, executive branch accountability, and just plain fair play.
This was, in reality, anything but the case. The historical record shows that compared with his predecessors, Barack Obama had made spare use of the executive order. And Jim Newell further tore down the hype on The Baffler’s blog, pointing out that many of the act-by-fiat plans that Obama enunciated amounted to little more than calling meetings, impaneling experts, and cajoling corporate executives to lend a hand—not the sort of stuff upon which tyrannies are built.
But the alternate-reality memes of cable commentary aren’t so easily dislodged. So Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer of Andrew Jackson, took to the comfortable confines of Morning Joe to offer an analysis so profoundly off the mark that one wonders, as the kids say, where his head was at:
We make fun of the executive orders and that is in fact something that—you know, you never really heard Lincoln and FDR say, “I’m going to rebuild America on an executive order.” You know, it’s not something that resonates off the tongue.
As this bald pronouncement made its way through the political blogosphere, Meacham was reminded that there was this pretty well-known executive order called the Emancipation Proclamation, and that much of FDR’s New Deal agenda was likewise implemented via executive order. And so Meacham, too, had his moment of contrition in the cable klieg lights. “I’ve had worse mornings, I’ve said dumber things,” he told Talking Points Memo, fairly enough. “But I can’t remember when.” As with Melissa Harris-Perry and Martin Bashir, they were the words of a person who couldn’t seem to recognize the idiot who had assumed his body and voice.
Naturally, dear readers, I don’t expect you to shed too many tears for these characters. We recognize that O’Donnell has always been a bull-headed blowhard, Bashir a haughty sensationalist, Meacham a milquetoast apologist for George W. Bush’s Iraq misadventures.
But a Melissa Harris-Perry is supposed to be the antidote to all of this misrule. When her show debuted in February 2012, she was touted as a breath of fresh cable air—part of a young MSNBC vanguard of news presenters and political thinkers that include people like Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki. They are curious, engaged, academic. They are, most assuredly, immune to epistemic closure, averse to frivolousness and buzz-chasing, skeptical of the excesses within their own ideological camp, and open-minded toward the alternative. And they weren’t supposed to end up like Martin Bashir, stooping for forgiveness because of some easily foreseeable transgression.
Yet as Harris-Perry reiterated with her own moment of public abjection, the intent of mere human subjects—even the powerful, meme-shaping subjects who are graced with their own cable news franchises—counts for almost nothing in the monotonously titillating world of cable commentary. Cable television news is a territory shaped by the indefatigable winds of oligopolistic market forces and a modern media culture that’s all too enamored of its own bankruptcy. It has produced a multitude of casualties. And it leads us to wonder, using those famous words of Steve Albini, if some of our friends may already be this fucked.
Where Isn’t the Outrage?
When Ted Turner talks about the dream that was CNN and what it ended up becoming, as he did in a July 2004 essay for the Washington Monthly titled “My Beef With Big Media,” he still conceives of himself as a mostly sinned-against “upstart.” In his telling, his tour of media moguldom was a character-crushing tragedy, in which a gonzo zillionaire with a defiant independent streak sets out to upend the old news establishment—and then largely fails to defend his own hard-won turf in the TV journalism wars, only to become a hesitant, if not entirely penitent, oligopolist. Turner blames the forces of media consolidation, spurred on by the rules of a merger-happy FCC, for the decline of CNN. In his Monthly confessional, he laments the “earnings pressure” that came in the wake of the 1996 Turner Broadcasting/Time Warner merger, complaining that “when all companies are quarterly earnings-obsessed, the market starts punishing companies that aren’t yielding an instant return.” He also discusses how television ratings bedeviled his network: “The producer Norman Lear once asked, ‘You know what ruined television?’ His answer: when the New York Times began publishing the Nielsen ratings. ‘That list every week became all anyone cared about.’”
The first mega-merged channel to emerge as a rival to CNN was MSNBC. A partnership between Microsoft and NBC News, it faced much the same challenge—the need to somehow market an unpredictable commodity, the news of the day—but with the additional burden of having to develop a branding strategy to differentiate its content from the headline-driven fare over at Turner’s network.
In the end, MSNBC didn’t become CNN’s fiercest competitor. That was the Fox News Channel, which eats CNN’s and MSNBC’s lunch in the ratings to this day. Fox’s success can be attributed to the genius of Roger Ailes, who tossed the whole concept of what a cable news channel should do into the dustbin. Ailes doesn’t view “the news” as an end product to take to market. Instead, he sees “the news” as raw material for the manufacture of a different product entirely: a sort of diazepam (Aldous Huxley would have perhaps recognized his own soma, from Brave New World) for disaffected conservatives who have tried the present culture in the courtrooms of their imagination and found it insufficiently American. In the harum-scarum fare of Fox’s breathless culture-war dispatches, these viewers find succor in a forum of opinion that’s designed to cater to their worldview and make them feel good about themselves for having it. The added brilliance of Ailes’s design is that he essentially pioneered “hate watching”; he drew in the peculiarly masochistic brand of cultural liberal who tunes in to the network for the sake of spying on the enemy camp and then comes away confirmed in his or her own sense of self-satisfaction.
It’s quaint to remember that a decade or so ago, it was merely Fox’s conservative bias that drew the ire of media critics. Would that things were that simple. Roger Ailes’s true legacy now appears to be the creation of a hermetically sealed worldview, generating an endless series of glorified talking points that look and sound like news, without ever once challenging a viewer’s preconceived notions about the world and how power operates within it. And whether or not the competitors trailing behind Fox’s wildly successful business model care to admit it, they work from the same playbook. Why think when you can feel? Why have simple emotions, when high dudgeon and lusty outrage offer such heroic highs? And why simply convey information, when you can conjure up a devoted viewership by the sheer force of your own operatic self-satisfaction? It turns out, in other words, that the best way to shun the panic-inducing unpredictability of the Nielsen ratings market is to consistently deliver smugness—to conscientiously program and package your news product so as to protectively seal your audience in the unquenchable righteousness of their own cultural grievance-addiction.
But it would be unfair to pin the endumbening of the cable news world solely on the Fox News Channel. If anything, the pernicious habits instilled by the respectable, neutral media have been just as damning.
Every Sunday morning, network news organizations stage political chat shows, primarily for a Beltway-centric audience. Meet the Press; Face the Nation; This Week, Occasionally with George Stephanopoulos . . . perhaps you’ve heard of them? For six years, I watched these shows religiously, on assignment for the Huffington Post. And I can tell you, if passively engorging myself on dayside cable news dreck was enough to give me contact stupidity, actively poring over the vicissitudes of our political culture’s solemn Sunday Morning Conversation was like mainlining high-test idiocy directly into my eyeballs with a white-hot needle. After six years of consuming this feculence, I had to quit the beat entirely, based on the documentable ways it was literally (and I am not abusing that word) ruining my life.
These shows bill themselves as “public affairs” programming, even though there’s not a single mote of evidence to suggest that their producers have had any significant contact with a member of the public in recent years. The shows further cast themselves in an adversarial tradition—the “press” is “met,” a “nation” is “faced”—but in reality, they are essentially salons, in which those entrusted with serving the public know that they’ll never be submitted to any really rough treatment. Those who are interrogated know that their interlocutors are too dependent on maintaining access to Capitol Hill’s A-list roster of power-mongers to risk alienating them.
After six years of consuming Sunday morning TV, I had to quit the beat entirely.
It cannot be said that these shows create a product that might be called journalism—or even attempt to. No one called to serve on a Sunday show panel is there for the purpose of reporting or informing. Rather, they are called to offer homilies from the High Church of Thought Leadership. Within that temple, the lives of normal human Americans almost never figure into the purely transactional airing of agenda items. Over the past six years of an ongoing unemployment crisis, the nation’s rampant joblessness would come up for discussion only to the extent that it might, theoretically, impinge upon the electoral prospects of affluent political elites. Likewise, there’s never any threat that the lofty exchange of views in these courtly venues will alight on a firm, empirically supported conclusion. That sort of thing just isn’t done—if for no other reason than the accumulated momentum of countless prior Sundays, and the hours spent touting such patent frauds as the American invasion of Iraq, the debt-leveraged housing bubble and the bailouts that followed hard upon its collapse, and the two-party system. Besides which, it wouldn’t be polite to interrupt our elite thought-havers—at least until the need to sell advertising for investment counseling concerns, luxury cars, or erectile dysfunction medications forces the host to reluctantly “leave it there.”
These programs and their tropes have come to define media culture, by making the incessant production of insidery ideations the premium brand of televisual discourse on politics—instead of, say, the service of the public trust in an honest and equitable way. New York University media critic Jay Rosen has a term for the way the participants of these shows have organized themselves: the “cult of the savvy,” where savviness is defined as the need to appear “with it” and “perceptive,” as opposed to being “just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane.”
To the people inside it, savviness is not a cult. It is not a professional church or belief system. They would probably reject my terms. But they would say that journalists need to be savvy observers because in politics the unsavvy are hapless, clueless, deluded, clownish, or, in some cases, extreme. The unsavvy get run over, easily. They get disappointed, needlessly. They get angry—fruitlessly—because they don’t know how things really work.[*]
As Rosen has it:
Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. Therefore the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you. Especially if you are active in politics yourself.
Now, in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it continually has to position the journalist and his observations not as right where others are wrong, or as virtuous where others are corrupt, or as visionary where others are short-sighted, but as mature, practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, child-like, and dreamy. This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog political realism to itself.
Spend enough time wandering around the cable news dial, and you’ll see the cult of the savvy in action virtually everywhere. You’ll see it as you watch the junior varsity thought leaders of The Cycle politely yammering each other into the eternium, striving to ensure that nobody ends up getting all fucked up on messy things like personal convictions. You’ll see it in the constant subconsequential natterings of decadent “media critic” Howard Kurtz. You’ll see it in the terminal self-absorption of Lawrence O’Donnell or Piers Morgan—though in a rare occasion of humane decision-making, you won’t be seeing this from Morgan anymore. The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, especially when its egomania sucks all of the oxygen out of the room.
The question is, when will we begin to see these symptoms—the “savviness,” the smug self-satisfaction—in the latest crop of cable news presenters, the ones who have promised to shift all the paradigms? That moment may be a ways off, but there are troubling signs that seem to merit the sounding of a distant early warning.
Trouble in Nerdland
In the beginning, there was branding, and the need for it. When MSNBC launched Up with Chris Hayes in September 2011, the network was making a risky bet that it could lure a younger audience out of bed early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. MSNBC had never been much of a weekend destination—its listings were typically larded with sensational series of prison life and true-crime pulp, and the network had suffered occasional criticism for not getting on the air in a timely fashion to cover non-weekday breaking news. Up was seen as an opportunity to present something with prestige that could compete with the Sunday morning public-affairs programming and attract a new generation of wonk-millennials. Hayes, a talented fill-in host with a solid sinecure at The Nation, was seen as an emerging talent and a potential “disruptor,” a role Hayes took to with aplomb, reportedly urging his guests, “The first and foremost important rule of the show: we’re not on television.”
Well, actually, they are, and they’re charged with employing the same basic gimmicks that any other show employs in order to stimulate the nation’s overloaded eyeballs. And so the producers of Up seized on a novel, fully modern means of branding the show and building an audience: they took a hashtag, #uppers, which had grown out of viewers riffing on how damn early the show started, and began referencing it during the show. The trend stuck, and MSNBC has followed that model ever since. When Melissa Harris-Perry’s show came on the air in February 2012, it enforced its own hashtag brand, #nerdland. As Hayes moved to the primetime schedule as the host of All In with Chris Hayes, #uppers begat #inners.
Just a bit of fun? Perhaps. But something still seemed somehow . . . off. Over time, the hashtagging morphed from something that built a brand into something that built a clique of self-selected cool kids congratulating themselves for being part of a fanboi smart set. The hashtags were shibboleths that demarcated who belonged and who didn’t. It all seemed . . . a trifle smarmy. Perhaps I’m making way too much of this. But you know how Chris Hayes wrote the book, literally, on the Twilight of the Elites? Well, I can assure him that the dawning of the elites happens not long after you let the scenesters in.
Watching our political culture’s solemn Sunday Morning Conversation was like mainlining high-test idiocy directly into my eyeballs with a white-hot needle.
Of course, you can attain only so much as a mere scenester. But there’s some members-only status-mongering to be ladled out on a regular basis even so. One feature that has become a mainstay on Up—which since Hayes’s departure for prime time has passed into the custodianship of Steve Kornacki, late of Salon—is a segment called “Up Against the Clock.” During this surreal early-morning interlude, Kornacki and his guests stop engaging with the serious issues they seek credit for covering in a “you are not on television” way, and stage a zany game show. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty “you are definitely on fucking television” thing to do.
It works like this: Three of Up’s guests take their place behind lecterns and answer three rounds of trivia questions. Points are scored, hijinks are had, and in the end, they give each other prizes, for knowing things like how many extra months of emergency unemployment insurance the Senate was proposing to confer on America’s long-suffering long-term unemployed, and what Republican senator was cosponsoring said bill. One might wonder, brimming with curiosity, what was motivating that Republican senator to break with his fellows and why he was doing so. Would this seeming lurch into the service of a greater public good turn into an electoral vulnerability? Did it stem from some region-based insight into the perils of localized long-term joblessness? Perhaps the renegade Republican acted out of some deeply held philosophical conviction, something that might be articulated and analyzed? One can only hope that some other show—on the radio perhaps?—thought to ask these questions.
On one particularly illuminating “Up Against the Clock” occasion, the three contestants were unable to identify the “blue state” that “enacted sweeping pension reforms that will cut benefits for state workers and save an estimated $160 billion over the next thirty years.” The answer? Illinois. One would imagine that the contestants might have been able to answer the question if there was, say, some televised news show committed to bringing to light what working-class residents of flyover states are enduring at a time when state governments across the country are pillaging the retirement accounts of state employees to make up for the criminally poor judgment of elite policymakers.
I know. I’m a too-serious killer of joy. A scolding mope, begrudging others the chance to blow off some steam and have a light-hearted moment. Perhaps. But for a show launched and governed by the assumption that the cable news model needed more thoughtfulness, more listening, and less cheapness, this self-congratulatory segment produces a crashing off-note, veering perilously close to the sort of Beltway-insider grotesquerie that Kornacki and his MSNBC labelmates all claim to eschew. Its main aim seems to be to prove who’s with it and hip—and the answer, of course, is that everyone is brilliant.
Say what you want about the hurtful joke that later reduced Melissa Harris-Perry to tears, but her one-off transgression had the fortunate benefit of being a one-off transgression. “Up Against the Clock” is an intentional display of self-congratulation—a feature, not a bug. If you are wondering how junior inductees into the Cult of the Savvy manage to ascend through their first few Operating Thetan levels, just watch “Up Against the Clock.”
I will confess, that as I outline this critique, I occasionally succumb to the dread fear that I’m indulging in the cheapest of literary exercises, concern-trolling. The fact of the matter is that I find much to admire in the output of shows like Up and All In and Harris-Perry’s show. They produce scads of content well worth watching and tackle topics that often go unmentioned. In general, I feel like they represent a well-intentioned effort to make cable news, somehow, better.
The fact of the matter is that I love a spot of fun, appreciate a good joke, and would gladly watch a panel show in the tradition of the BBC’s comic giants. But there’s a clear difference between a funny bit that assumes an audience’s intelligence (watch, for instance, Chris Hayes and Gawker’s Cord Jefferson riff on the criminal culture of white people in a brilliant parody of media tropes) and a whole segment of a show that’s designed to simply state and restate, “We are some clever people on the teevee, dig us.”
And so I cannot escape my worries that the people who are laboring to do something different, and better, in the cable news medium are a lot closer than they think to becoming what they despise.
Wasting Away in the Dudgeon
In an odd coda to Melissa Harris-Perry’s apology saga, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates used his platform to argue that Harris-Perry was “America’s foremost public intellectual.” It was, obviously, a bold claim that invites scrutiny and argument. (For my part, I’d always ranked Coates a little ahead of Harris-Perry in my ordering of public intellectuals.) Any chance, however, of the discussion Coates invited remaining thoughtful or polite was lost when Politico’s perpetually in-over-his-head media reporter, Dylan Byers, took to Twitter to reject the premise of the discussion and slag off Coates with a cheap diss: “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s claim that ‘Melissa Harris-Perry is America’s foremost public intellectual’ sort of undermines his intellectual cred, no?”
This inevitably led to bunkering and backbiting—another dispiriting double-shift on the high-dudgeon production line. But once all the mean-spirited turd-tossing had died down, I noticed that a rather important question had never been raised: Assuming that Melissa Harris-Perry is, at the very least, one of America’s leading public intellectuals, if not the foremost, then how has it come to be that hosting a cable news show is the best thing that we, as participants in a shared cultural tradition, can offer her? Since when did directing pundit traffic before a studio camera become the sine qua non of intellectual accomplishment? As Harris-Perry looked back upon the televisual version of herself—the one who stooped to acknowledging, and contributing, some base quips about Mitt Romney’s family—did she wonder what she’d gotten herself into? Did she worry that she’d made a mistake?
The latest young intellectual to grace MSNBC’s roster of presenters, and bulk up the supply of serious-minded cable news disruptors, is Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen. He is, without a doubt, the product of a fame economy and the beneficiary of some small amount of celebrity connection. At the same time, he is not without impressive academic and occupational accomplishment. But I suppose you don’t have to take anyone’s word for it. As Gawker noted, those accomplishments are emblazoned all over the set of his show:
The rear panels of Ronan’s stage set feature several thematic word clouds superimposed over a world map—“FOREIGN AFFAIRS,” “STAND UP,” “INVOLVE,” “PEACE,” etc.—which also function, if you look closely enough, as Farrow’s visual résumé. In the photo above, you’ll notice “PUBLISHED AUTHOR” splayed across half of Africa (Farrow, who recently profiled Miley Cyrus for W Magazine, is writing a book about military aid) and “LAWYER” positioned on top of Sweden (Farrow is a licensed attorney in New York State).
Indeed, Farrow’s credentials swirl around the show’s opening credits, and include words like: “diplomat,” “Yale Law School,” and “State Department.” Gawker, naturally, assumed the most cynical position: “Ronan Farrow Is Pretty Great, According to Ronan Farrow’s TV Show.” An MSNBC spokesperson attempted to offer a more genial explanation: “The words are just general terms about the show. Sometimes they touch on worlds Ronan has moved in as we roll out the show. They mainly focus on the news and the show’s reporting.”
I would posit that these word clouds serve a more practical, self-preserving purpose. When the day comes that Ronan Farrow finds himself appalled at what cable news has turned him into, he need only turn his back on the cameras to remember what he used to be.
[*]CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this essay incorrectly quoted Jay Rosen. Sorry for the mistake.