Even on news shows like Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room on CNN, the ratio of news to everything else is preposterously tilted toward everything else. During high news events, Blitzer will often have not one but two separate panels of analysts/commentators in the studio. The result is that even when there is news to be broadcast, more time is spent assessing it than reporting it.
Over the course of an average day, all this talking on the three channels adds up to more than half a million words spilled on cable-news air. That’s a phenomenal amount of verbiage—by volume, a new War and Peace every single day. It does not, as you might guess, approach anything like the art and coherence of a novel. Rarely does a single sentence rise to that level.
What are they talking about all the time? Usually, they’re talking about what a particular little morsel of news means. What is that bit of news good for? Whom is it good for? Who’s up, who’s sideways, who’s selling the country down the river? There is a very large measure of performance involved in all of this. The studio hosts typically play some amped-up, over-the-top version of themselves. They bring to mind nothing so much as one of the vibrant monologues from the Howard Beale character in the movie Network: “Television is a Goddamned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!”
If you talked all day every day you’d say some pretty stupid stuff and, no surprise, the cable talkers are no exceptions. Much of what gets said, in fact, is just barely above gibberish. On his December 10 show, O’Reilly led with an attack on Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law & Order television franchise, for allowing a character on one of his shows to criticize O’Reilly by name. To buttress his rebuttal of Wolf, O’Reilly quotes—who better?—himself. Later in the show, he interviews fellow host Glenn Beck about President Obama’s Peace Prize, which Beck says was given as a sort of affirmative action award.
Beck: I used to believe in a meritocracy. I used to believe you would. . . .
O’Reilly: Earn things?
Beck: You would earn things. I have no problem with the president winning a Nobel Peace Prize.
O’Reilly: No, I agree he didn’t earn it, but so what? It’s Norway. You know? It’s Norway. You know what I’m talking about?
Beck: Well, now that you put it in that context.
O’Reilly: Right. And I love Norway.
Beck: You’re exactly right. Who doesn’t love Norway?
O’Reilly: I love the fjords.
O’Reilly: I’ve been to Oslo.
Beck: I have never.
O’Reilly: Right. I believe I have some Viking blood in me.
Beck: Do you? I think you do.
O’Reilly: OK. So. . . .
Beck: I want him to wear the hat with the horns. Don’t you? Seriously.
O’Reilly: It’s Norway.
Beck: Send him the hat with the horns. He’ll wear it. But [singing] la la la la. [speaking] He’d do it.
O’Reilly: Easy, Mr. Fascination. Calm down.
There’s a loopy self-absorption to this that is peculiar to Fox and that derives from its origin narrative as the network for the unrepresented, for the outsiders. There is a strain of resentment, of put-upon-ness that pervades almost everything Fox puts on the air. Beck, in particular, was born to play this part. He would be Beale. On his own show that night, Beck spent fully two-thirds of his time in an agitated defense of himself against charges few would ever had heard of had he not spent so much time defending them.