L. Neil Smith's
Number 287, September 5, 2004

"Who the hell are these people?"

No News Is Good News
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

It feels so good to be out of touch.

Last Thursday I went to Best Buy and brought home a brand new TV. Flat screen. Twenty-seven inches. I would love to say I rushed home and watched it, but I didn't. I couldn't. It weighed down my car (with a little help from the new kitchen table in my trunk). But suffice it to say, I drove home as quickly as the laws of physics would allow. And it wasn't more than a minute after plugging in my new Toshiba that I realized, gosh darn it, nothing was on.

Not that this stopped me from watching. Hell no. Heaven forbid. In college I learned there are two types of television viewing; one's called "instrumental" (where you turn on the TV for something specific), and the other's called "ritual" (where you turn on the TV for the sake of turning on the TV). And last Thursday? I was a ritual viewer. I was going to watch TV whether I liked it or not—having plunked down a couple of hundred bucks for the privilege of doing so.

So first I tried watching some preseason football. The Eagles were playing the Steelers on ABC. This lasted about ten minutes. Maybe less. I find it incredibly hard to watch a whole preseason football game. In fact, I find it incredibly hard to watch any whole football game—before, during, or after the regular season. And don't get me started on the arena league. These games are so damn long. They go to commercial after every other down. I think I saw a single play during the entire ten minutes I tried to watch. I can't stand that. They might as well start a Commercial Channel and take breaks every now and then for 60 seconds of football. At least then there'd be honesty in advertising.

Anyway, I'm told the Steelers won.

Next, I tried watching "The Simple Life," on Fox. God bless this network for continually pumping out the nation's most thought-provoking programs. First "Temptation Island;" now this. I guess what I was watching was "The Simple Life 2," if you want to get technical. But either way, it's a coming-of-age reality-TV show about two young women, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, who travel the country in the spirit of Kerouac, looking for adventure, narrowly avoiding the perils of maturity. I kept waiting for them to join hands and drive straight off a cliff in an effort to strengthen their friendship, but, sadly, they never did.

I then realized ESPN was broadcasting the same Steelers-Eagles game as ABC. So I tried watching it again. It didn't last.

Then I stumbled upon a handful of news channels—FNC, CNBC, CNN, etc. All of them were talking about the exact same thing, which made me wonder why I needed more than one news channel to begin with. But anyway, the topic was John Kerry. Apparently there's some controversy nowadays about his military record. And apparently I missed the boat on this story because I've been too busy getting married, moving, and vacationing outside the country—selfish acts in an election year.

So I went ahead and watched for about five minutes as Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes presented both sides of the issue at very high decibels on Fox News. I then flipped to one of the peacock networks and watched some lady named Deborah Norville talk from both sides of her mouth. Finally, I switched to Dennis Miller, who was having the most meaningful conversation of all. He was wearing a chef's hat. That's when I gave up.

And that's when I realized I have no idea what's going on in the world of politics right now. I don't know who said what, or who pissed off whom. I don't know who's leading in the polls. And I have no idea what this John Kerry/Swift Boat story is all about. And you know what? I don't care.

I'm out of touch and loving every minute of it.

I used to figure the type of people who watched "The Simple Life" were the type of people who tuned out of politics, who were therefore "ruining the country" with their "ignorance," "apathy," and "incessant use of quote marks." But looking back, I think I was wrong. It's the people who think they're "making a difference" by supporting politicians who will give your money away. It's the gung-ho political junkies who will send your kids to war. These are the people we need to look out for. Apathetic couch potatoes? Well, they're more like the Monkees; they're too busy singing—dancing, channel surfing, or whatever—to put anybody down.

This isn't a rant against politics, though. It's a rant against the news networks themselves. Life seems generally better without them. The world no longer seems like it's coming to an end every hour on the hour.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think we should ignore world events altogether. But the 24-hour news channels don't exactly represent what's going on in the world. They represent made-for-TV controversies—like the Swift Boat scandal, or the one about George Bush and the National Guard. They represent random human interest stories, blown up and looked at, and looked at again, as if it makes a difference to anyone, anywhere, outside the households of those involved. Take Scott Peterson, for instance. Does anyone other than Dan Abrams actually care about this trial? Does anyone other than Greta Van Susteren think it matters in the grand scheme of things? If so, why? It's nobody's business how this trial goes.

Look, I like television. I'm not one of these two-bit, anti-idiot-box social commentators who will tell you how good it is to turn off the tube and read. I like reading; I'm a writer, after all. But I also like TV. And I really don't care if watching too much of it rots my brain. Let it rot. I wasn't going to use it anyway.

But that said, digital cable and satellite have really expanded our options. You don't need me to tell you that this is why news channels have adopted a "news entertainment" model, focusing on ratings instead of reporting. But it's also why networks of all kinds try so hard to carve out a social niche. Take ESPN, for example. They're celebrating their 25th Anniversary this year. The bulk of their programming is now based on the premise that sports history conveniently dates back 25 years.

Then there's MTV, which routinely cheers its own social impact with shows about the importance of its shows. Talk about mastering the art of propaganda; Goebbels would be a very jealous man. A decade ago, MTV invented a genre with the debut of "The Real World." A few years later, a cast member passed away from AIDS, and MTV News was there to tell us how much this meant to the MTV Generation. They haven't stopped mentioning it since. What an ingenious marketing gimmick. Ever notice there's no such thing as the "Food Network Generation"? And yet food is much more vital to human existence than music (to the extent that MTV still plays music). So you tell me whose marketing team has done the better job.

The point is, to some degree, CNN and Fox News do the same thing. Are they in the reality TV business? No. But they act like they're windows into what moves the American people. That's their niche. That's the vital service they claim to provide.

And therein lies the problem with presenting an election like a locker-room spat between two teenage drama queens. Fox News is so wrapped up in its "You Decide 2004" shtick that it fails to note how the choice between Bush and Kerry isn't really a choice at all. Republicans and Democrats get on the air and accuse the other party's guy of being a war criminal, and meanwhile no one comes on and says, "Hey, they're both war criminals, and we'd be better off without them." Instead we get Sean Hannity with his arrogant eyebrows and liberal use of the phrase "all you liberals." And we get Alan Colmes with his look at me I'm fair because I'm balanced and make concessions whenever my partner talks louder than me attitude.

Who the hell are these people? Why the hell should we care about them? The skies seem brighter whenever they're not on.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column on politics and personal freedoms for "The Aquarian." His website is www.readjdm.com, and he can be reached at readjdm@yahoo.com.


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