My mom, a Republican who has been known to put an American-flag bandanna on my dog and take her to Tea Party rallies, loves Al Jazeera America.
She likes it because it is all news reporting, it is always live, there are few advertisements, and most especially there is almost never any commentary—liberal, conservative, or whatever Rand Paul is.
Like me and everybody else with sense, my mother has heard enough. She has heard enough of pundits: pundits’ projecting, pundits’ arguing, pundits’ horseracing, pundits’ prognosticating, pundits’ crossfiring, pundits’ lying, pundits’ cheating, pundits’ roundtabling, pundits’ hardballing, pundits’ O’Reillying, pundits’ punditing. I love watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert because they are brilliant—and brilliantly scripted—and also making fun of enough. But everyone else should please be quiet, or better still, shut up.
The one place unemployment is not nearly high enough is on cable news channels. And that is why my mother, who reads The New York Times on her iPad every day, and is conservative but not stupid—yes, it is possible—watches Al Jazeera America, and not Fox News, as you might expect.
A large amount of 24-hour news is predicated on the notion that there is a significant population whose dinner parties people would like to observe. This is crazy. So much of it is four people, give or take a cipher or consultant, sitting around a roundtable talking, without the benefit of a decent Pinot Noir and canapés. And what is there to say? Last week, there was a lot of talk about the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech. I got the idea that John Lewis is the only living speaker from the original rally the eighth time. At this point any long-term congressional incumbent like Lewis should answer for the do-nothing House. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but Lewis was as disrespectful as could be when he was young and full of moxie. Why treat him like a statue? Cable news could be great conversation if it were willing to be disruptive. Instead it is a medium that repeats the most meaningful point until it is anodyne crap.
Sometimes only the immediacy of news can break through the numbness. It is only watching the live standoff between the Boston Police and the immigrant Muslim kid hiding in a boat in Watertown, after he allegedly bombed marathon runners and caused the death of his beloved older brother, that we react for real. That is what television can do that nothing else can. On a good day, it is medium hot. Al Jazeera America is betting that people want to feel.
Perhaps it will up everyone’s game. There was a time when CNN was a full-time news channel. Anyone old enough to remember the first Gulf War and the first President Bush recalls the SCUDs exploding like fireworks in the night sky over Iraq in 1991.
At the time, I had a 10-inch square TV that looked like a white microwave oven propped on some milk crates at the foot of my bed on Park Avenue South, and I relied on rabbit-ear antennas for reception, which was possible when the World Trade Center was around. Late at night, I would go to Chelsea and hang with this guy I knew from college who had cable, and we would watch CNN live, bombshells over Baghdad. I don’t know why him. I would get into his bed and we’d forget to have sex because we were fixated on the news. The black sky would go crazy white as if someone were taking an X-ray as missiles exploded. It became boring to point out how much it was like watching a movie. I wondered when someone would point out how much it was like watching TV.
Night after night, it was the same thing, but it was live, and that made it somehow amazing and new, even when it got old, which it didn’t. Really, it looked no different than the Fourth of July, minus the karaoke version of classical music played behind the Macy’s fireworks display. Obviously, the casualties were countless, but it was a wargasm to watch. In the morning, the postmortem would be handled by sudden stars Gen. “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell. Slam bam thank you Saddam.
That was more than two decades ago. CNN has hardly been a newsmaker since, unless Anderson Cooper is blowing in the wind during some weather disaster with the rain gone horizontal. It could be worse. It could be MSNBC, which has as a host the preacher who perpetrated the Tawana Brawley hoax and which gets part of its call letters from Microsoft—since the whole thing started as a partnership between a broadcaster and a technology corporation. The house that Gates built has not been involved with MSNBC for years, but for some reason no one finds the name strange.
While CNN does have a huge capacity to report news, MSNBC does not at all, except to the extent that it has the resources of NBC News available, which it mostly does not use. As a result, following the Boston Marathon bombing, MSNBC’s dismal ratings were dismal-er, because people wanted updates on events, not spin. MSNBC—home of said preacher and also of Lockup, a reality show about prison that is its biggest draw—can only spin. MSNBC does not even wash or rinse, like Fox News—boy oh boy, does Fox launder the facts—so it sure can’t report.
Of course, there are more basic problems, such as basic cable. I have Time Warner, so I don’t have access to Al Jazeera America. I watched it steadily for a weekend at my mother’s house, and it was amazing that it was live at 3 a.m., unlike its new competitors. I was not quite so live at that hour. I was lulled to slumber with reports of the wretched events in Syria, a country that soon may be treated to a visit from some cruise missiles, courtesy of the United States of America. I guess I am going to have to find a man with Verizon FiOS sometime in the next couple of weeks, so I have a place to go and watch the action happen live on Al Jazeera. Some things never change.