My Brain on Cable News

Tuning into TV’s battle to the death

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

I owe a lot to cable news. When I saw the coverage of the Gulf War on CNN in 1991 it changed my whole understanding of everything. Peter Arnett was on the roof of the Al Rasheed Hotel, describing what it looked like when American bombs exploded in Baghdad. Sometimes we’d be shown footage of precision bombs from the bomb’s-eye view. We, the viewing public of the United States, were the bomb. The whole thing was wrong and horrible. Horrible, obviously, because it killed human beings—soldiers on a highway of death and civilians in their beds in a country we didn’t understand—and horrible also because, as we discovered later, it created a specific kind of rage, a fiercely focused, retributive rage. Things that blow up from the air make groups of people really mad. The rage of the bombed lasts for years and years. 

I learned about war from CNN and I became a pacifist. I also stopped watching cable news altogether, because it made me crazy. Until now, when a nice editor asked me to write about CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. Well, OK, I thought, let me give it a go. The year 1991 was a long time ago. Maybe everything’s different.

There was a problem, which was that my wife and I didn’t actually have a TV. We’d given ours to my mother-in-law, who lives in a retirement home. She watches PBS: Amanpour & Company, Paul Simon singing “The Sound of Silence,” and British comedy shows with loud laugh tracks. Sometimes the staff at the retirement home turns it to Fox News, but we turn it back. My wife and I still watch TV, of course, but we watch TV on a laptop, using Netflix. Is there anything better than watching reruns of Friends on Netflix? I don’t think so.

So I had to buy a TV, which I did, for $150—a beautiful 24-incher. The cable guy came a week or so later and hooked us up. He had a few things to say about the news shows. He didn’t like Donald Trump, he said, but he didn’t like the way CNN and MSNBC were using anything and everything to bring him down, either. 

It took me a few days to work up the nerve to turn the TV on for more than a few minutes at a time. When I did, there in front of me—along with the ads for Gold Bond Lotion and Gorton’s fish sticks and the “world’s best pillow” from MyPillow.com and the Funeral Advantage program and Sheex, which are a new kind of sheet with a 30-night guarantee, and the Shark vacuum cleaner, which can vacuum up potato chips on a couch, and the Ozempic injection device, which lowers your blood sugar and is not a weight loss drug and allows you to be a happy fireman or farmer again—along with all these interesting and revealing ads (ads are themselves news, after all) was something momentous and fascinating. It was the memorial service for George Herbert Walker Bush.

The very person who had gotten us into the Gulf War was the person who was now being mourned. I watched, and was sad. Any life that ends, anywhere on the planet, leaves a ghostly trail of grief in the world.

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Bush was loved by many patriotic people, and I’m sorry he’s gone, because with him goes another piece of the living past. The fact that he’d been in charge of a good deal of destructive international meddling as head of the Central Intelligence Agency—that he’d launched a military attack on Panama City to get rid of Manuel Noriega, a dictator who had been on the CIA payroll; that he’d sent warplanes into Iraq, destroying the country and setting in motion a generation of international turmoil—was immaterial for the moment. Here on TV was a heavy coffin with a formerly living person in it, being slowly walked down the steps of the Capitol Building, held by men in uniform, step by step.

And CNN, normally so talkative, said nothing. There was just the flag-wrapped coffin, the uniformed men, the synchronized downward steps, and the music of the military band. The Bush family was lined up near the hearse. Wolf Blitzer, who had gotten his start by narrating the bombing of Bush’s Gulf War, was silent. Jake Tapper was silent.

Finally, Blitzer spoke. “Another very, very moving ceremony at the US Capitol honoring the 41st president of the United States. The casket is now on that presidential hearse.” He described what was to come at the National Cathedral.

What works on television is moment-to-moment political scrimmaging between war hawk Democrats and war hawk Republicans.

Then Jake Tapper spoke. “What a sad but also odd moment this must be for President George W. Bush, one of only two men in the history of this nation to have served as president after his father served as president,” he said. “Not only is he going through what must be a heart-wrenching experience, helping to bury the man who he revered so much, he is also getting a glimpse of what his funeral will be like. Very few Americans will have the opportunity to be honored in such a way, with a state funeral such as this one. And he is seeing how he—and obviously President Obama, President Clinton, and others, not to get too macabre—but the send-off that they will all experience.”

Not to get too macabre. Those words stuck in my head. Later that morning, when all of the living former presidents—Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter—were seated in the front row of the cathedral with their wives, some announcer again noted that these men were being given a foretaste of what was in store for them. This is what an American presidential funeral looks like. This is what life after death looks like.

Carter seemed sad and a little lost. Was he sad because he knew that his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski—the father of Mika Brzezinski, costar of MSNBC’s Morning Joe with her husband, Joe Scarborough—began the program of arming and indoctrinating right-wing religious fanatics in Afghanistan as a way of pushing Russia out? Was he regretting that his administration had set in motion a giant, spreading tide of terror in the Middle East? Probably not. He has done many good things in his life as well.

I looked at Obama. In his last year in office, his administration dropped more than 26,000 bombs on six faraway countries. Was he thinking, on this day of public mourning, of how many civilians he’d killed, how many drone assassinations he’d ordered? And Hillary Clinton—was she thinking about her own ill-fated intervention in Syria as secretary of state, her covert arming of the rebel factions, beginning in 2011, which fueled yet another war? And what about Bill Clinton and his years of harassment strikes on Iraq, his unconscionable sanctions, the aerial chaos he unleashed on Belgrade? What about George W. Bush, who took advantage of 9/11 to unleash the furies on Afghanistan and Iraq? Did any of them regret what they’d done? I doubted it. Bush wept for his father—movingly—but in that cathedral, filled with Washington’s finest, nobody was weeping for the millions of families who have suffered as a result of what America has become under their leadership: a monstrous, amoral, bipartisan, deficit-financed engine of international provocation and precision-guided mayhem.

And then Donald and Melania Trump arrived. They found their seats at the end of the pew. Trump was a bulky presence, radiating truculence, with a mouth expression that seemed modeled not on Benito Mussolini but on Mr. Toad of The Wind in the Willows. From the presidents seated alongside him Trump had inherited air wars and semi-covert interventions all over the Middle East and Africa. He’d moved quickly to make everything worse by appointing James Mattis as his defense secretary. Marine General “Mad Dog” Mattis, as his colleagues sometimes call him, who held high military commands under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and had served on the board of General Dynamics, a defense contractor, was best known for saying, in 2005, that “it’s fun to shoot some people” and that killing enemies was “a hell of a hoot.” According to Esther Schrader and Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times, a clip of these remarks was cheered by troops in Iraq when it was played on CNN. 

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

In Iraq last year, under General Mattis’s “annihilation” plan for the Islamic State, Mosul’s Old City was blasted to ruins, and Raqqa, in Syria, suffered the same fate. Civilian death rates doubled. These fearsome urban attacks received minimal coverage on cable news, however. “Obsessed with the seemingly daily updates in the Stormy Daniels story or the impeachment potential of the Russia investigation, the American media is paying even less attention now to a topic it never focused on with much zeal,” Margaret Sullivan wrote in The Washington Post last March. Why so little coverage? Because the reality of permawar is tiresome. It doesn’t work well on cable. It becomes unmentionable, embarrassing, almost taboo. Somewhere off in the distance, American hardware is again blowing up a neighborhood and wailing, rocking parents are holding dead children in their arms. It’s been going on for so long, under the Bushes, Clinton, Obama, and now Trump, that it simply doesn’t register. Small sites like TomDispatch and Antiwar.com try to get word out, as do larger outfits such as Reuters and The Intercept, but most people aren’t paying attention. What works on television, for a larger audience, is the moment-by-moment political scrimmaging between war hawk Democrats and war hawk Republicans, the incessant flag-flappery of support for the troops, the perpetuation of the fiction that the United States, as a political power, is a force for good in the world, when it so obviously isn’t. 

 

What’s actually on cable these days is a bizarre legalistic death battle. Cohen, Manafort, Flynn, Butina, Mueller, Giuliani, et al. We aren’t debating whether Trump has been responsible for the deaths of innocents, because everyone knows that he is—presidents and collateral damage go hand in hand. If Trump goes to prison, it will not be for child murder, but for distributing hush money to silence former mistresses and for taking bribes and for engaging in back channel machinations with Russia. Whatever it takes, I suppose, but I have to agree with my cable guy: there’s something unseemly about the means employed.

Fox News is addictive and awful: choirboys gone to seed and women’s dresses with weird portholes at the shoulders or at the cleavage. The anchors jeer smilingly at ideas that any sensible person of generous mind can see make sense. Quick clips of closed-circuit footage of humans with darker skin doing bad things are injected into the river of commentary—mug shots included—to create little mental firecracker pops of righteous wrath among the pickup-truck crowd, along with “funny” attacks on progressive causes by rightist comedians who love steak and country music. Fox & Friends is a hot mess of clean living and white-right American self-deception, and I can’t watch it for very long without feeling queasy. But it’s an easy mark.

CNN, with its glass-topped tables crowded with center-right commentators perched on high stools, and its appealing specials on kindly geniuses like Gilda Radner, is much better than Fox, though still at times heartbreakingly wrong. John Berman is quick on his feet, and Don Lemon’s delivery, with dramatic pauses and piercing “let’s get real” eye contact, is sometimes remarkably strong. And then there are voices of reason soaring in from deep time: for instance, John Dean, of Watergate fame. He’s good. 

MSNBC, though, has the sharpest news anchors and reporters and guest experts. Hallie Jackson and Ari Melber seem like genuine human beings trying to think things through. Sometimes, watching MSNBC, listening to all the fine points of analytical commentary, I have been thrilled by the level of legal insight. But other times, it feels like I’m watching a pack of hungry dogs circling around some giant blundering pachyderm, tearing out hunks of flesh and splattering the screen with blood and saliva.

On the night of George H.W. Bush’s funeral, Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word on MSNBC was about the eulogy by Alan Simpson, a former senator. Bush never hated anyone, Simpson had said. “He knew what his mother knew and my mother always knew: Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.” This is a Chinese proverb (although Simpson didn’t give the Chinese credit), and it’s true. Cable news, because there’s so much of it, because it’s always on the prowl for new outrages and trespasses, because lurid headlines are always creeping, creeping across the bottom of the screen, feeds hatred, and feeds on hatred, and thereby corrodes the American brain.

On December 19, President Trump did one small good thing: he announced that troops were leaving Syria. (Intermittent bombing and lethal droning, presumably, would continue.) Mattis promptly announced his resignation—thank goodness—releasing a letter about how important it was to be “clear eyed” about our enemies Russia and China. Instantly, MSNBC and CNN had all sorts of national security experts on to extol Mattis’s wisdom and attack child leader Trump’s single positive presidential act. Later, after the dustup, Trump, our most devoted consumer of cable news, tweeted that the pullout was going to happen “slowly.”

It’s all a game. People seem to crave a ludicrously evil enemy, like Uncle Joe Stalin, like the Penguin on the old Batman shows. Trump is perfect for that role. But the enemy is not Trump (or Putin, or Stalin, or the Penguin), it’s us. We’ve got to figure out a way to live less intrusively on this gorgeous, multilingual, fast-melting, parti-colored planet. We need news that helps us do that. I’ve learned a lot from journalist-historians like Tom Engelhardt, Nick Turse, and Ann Jones, and from the hardworking people at Common Dreams, edited in my own beloved state of Maine.

Time to turn the TV off now—mute the animatronic moving mouths of the opinionators. Cable news overpoliticizes us—at least, it overpoliticizes me. It turns me into somebody I don’t recognize: a frowny, beard-plucking, wave-whitened, despair-darkened ancient mariner. I did, however, enjoy the ad for Gorton’s fish sticks.

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Nicholson Baker is the author of many books, including his most recent, Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act.