03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Watching Cable News Induces Despair

What could have possibly reduced Center For American Progress blogger Matt Yglesias to a state of "agitation," "despair," anger, and "helpless[ness]" inside of 20 minutes on a Monday? The lack of accessible bike lanes? The overall mediocrity of the Washington Wizards? No. These things take the better part of an hour to get Yglesias to the point where he's "pissed off."

As it turns out, the irritant was the return of the constant, frantic bleat of cable news, after a prolonged period of time abroad enjoying the "high-fiber" content of "CNN International and BBC World News." While this is not something I go home and complain about, knowing that my wife -- having worked on her feet all day at an elementary school -- is not likely to offer me much in the way of sympathy, I feel Matt's pain:

Just like traders have CNBC and Bloomberg on in their offices, political operatives are constantly tuned in to what's happening on cable news. The result is a really bizarre hothouse scenario in which people are basically watching.. well... nothing, but they're riveted to it. How things "play" on cable news is considered fairly important even though no persuadable voters are watching it. And cable news' hyper-agitated style starts to infect everyone's frame of mind, making it extremely difficult for everyone to forget that the networks have huge incentives to massively and systematically overstate the significance of everything that happens.

One of the things you quickly notice, as you become a full-time consumer of cable news, is that it's largely formatted like top-40 radio. The goal is not to present a constantly evolving and advancing line of thought -- it's to rotate the day's "greatest hits" as often as possible. This makes perfect sense, when you understand that the typical consumer of dayside cable coverage glances in for a brief period of time during the day. If you sample a mere fifteen minutes of, say, MSNBC, you'll likely get a dose of top and breaking news, a panel discussion on the key issue of the day, and enough of what's going on "this minute" to feel reliably informed. When you watch the entire day, however, you start the feel the oppressive, repetitive pound of whatever stories are in heavy rotation.

Remember back when that Susan Boyle was taking the world by storm singing a song competently while simultaneously not looking glamorous, turning everything you knew about talent and celebrity on its head? Well, if you were a typical news consumer, you caught the story once or twice on cable news. If you were a "political operative" or a media watcher, you saw the same segment 14 times a day for a week, and by the end of it, the strains of "I Dreamed a Dream," were enough to make you nauseous.

Based on my experience, I can tell you that nothing in the world feels better than those rare and looked-forward-to occasions when the news breaks away from their pattern to cover an unfolding, high-speed police chase. And, if you want to send a Washington, DC-based cable news watcher into a spasm of fear and loathing today, the only thing you need to do is speak four words aloud to them: "Safelite repair, Safelite replace". Trust me on this.

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