IPFS Menckens Ghost

More About: MEDIA (MainStreamMedia - aka MSM)

Silly, shallow debates on silly, shallow cable news

When there's a lull in the game, I take a break from baseball for a few minutes of partisan yelling.


Joseph Epstein

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 7, 2018 5:35 p.m. ET

Often while watching baseball on television I will, during pitching changes or breaks between innings, turn to CNN or MSNBC or Fox News for three or so minutes of opinionation. Whenever I do, I am reminded that Paul Valéry likened many expressions of opinion to "products of intestinal flatulence." Never one to let a good metaphor go until it has rendered full service, Valéry added that such emissions "relieve the man giving vent to them, but pollute the intellectual air of others."

On cable TV, what one chiefly gets is strong opinions wrapped in indignation. How the producers and hosts who run these shows, along with their various guests and panelists, are able to maintain themselves in a state of permanent umbrage must be a trade secret. Those on CNN and MSNBC are furious toward Donald Trump and his crew; those on Fox News are equally furious toward CNN, MSNBC and the mainstream media generally. Something about politics keeps the flow of righteous anger alive. One might say—Paul Valéry in fact did say, writing in a French context—that "each party has its own program of indignation, and its standard reflexes."

People watch the shows on these channels, I gather, chiefly to have their own political opinions reinforced. I myself neither need such support nor wish to make others share my opinions. If too many people came over to my side, it would only make me doubt the subtlety of my views. Whenever I am at a fairly large gathering of people who supposedly share my opinions, my first thought, gazing upon the herd of independent minds, is to wonder if I shouldn't reconsider these opinions.

Now that cable has made possible television shows devoted exclusively to political commentary, a new type of performer has arisen. We do not yet have a name for him. But the French refer to newscasters as speakerines, a word suggesting that they are not quite human but machines through which are purveyed the words of others. I wonder if "opinionators" might make a good fit for people who regularly appear on cable television political panels.

They specialize in the expression of opinions, and they have thoughts on everything: tariffs, North Korea, abortion, race, monetary policy, nuclear weapons, crime, climate, coal, foreign policy and anything else you happen to have around the house. No one could possibly be very knowledgeable, let alone expert, on all these topics, but the job of the professional opinionator is to pretend to be, for anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

The difference between knowledge and opinion is vast. I realize there is something called informed opinion. But most of the information TV panelists provide is shaped in advance by their opinions, which are in turn stoked by their relentless indignation. A rare exception to this was the late Charles Krauthammer, who generally let wit do the work of indignation.

In the 1950s the media became attached to the notion of dialogue. The idea was that if people with greatly different views discussed the issues openly and civilly, they would come to a mediated conclusion, a happy medium, a golden mean. Liberal newspapers hired at least one conservative columnist and vice versa. Hence, William Safire at the New York Times and Alexander Cockburn at The Wall Street Journal.

The political cable channels have taken up the spirit of dialogue in an almost rote fashion. On CNN and MSNBC, the panelists with standard left-wing opinions are provided with a so-to-say house conservative, to give the impression of balance; conservative panels likewise have their house liberal. Often a liberal and a conservative will be called to debate a point, usually with the strongly politicized host aiding the guest with whom he has the greater political affinity, thereby giving the unpleasant impression of ganging up. Sometimes a host will directly face down an opposing figure. Usually the two debaters wind up talking over each other, ensuring that neither is listening to the other.

One recent night, during a seventh-inning pitching change in a Cubs-Reds game, I turned to CNN. There I discovered Chris Cuomo and Kellyanne Conway both yelling at each other over the question of whether Donald Trump was a liar. They could have saved everyone a lot of time, I thought, if they had settled the matter by flipping a coin or perhaps thumb-wrestling.

What a relief to return to the Cubs-Reds game. The Cubs won 7-1, while the Cuomo-Conway match ended in a dreary tie, 0-0, with neither side, like so much political discourse on cable television in our day, scoring any points.

Mr. Epstein is author of "The Ideal of Culture and Other Essays" (Axios Press, 2018) and the forthcoming "Charm: The Elusive Enchantment" (Lyons Press), to be published in October.