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Rusty Russell Headshot

Cable TV Should Be Ashamed

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This is not a rant about media bias. Biased reporting pales in comparison with the mindless dismantling of our national psyche by Cable TV. ALL Cable TV.

If Cable were my only source of news, I would have no idea that today Barack Obama rolled out an aggressive and party-defying education policy, let alone understand any of the policy's details. Nobody on Cable thinks that deserves even a mention.

I would be unaware that the Republican party in Michigan is organizing an effort to challenge voting by anyone who's received a foreclosure notice. Nice. Republican rule created the economic sinkhole that put these people out of their homes. Now that same disgraced party wants to deny them the most basic of American rights. But Cable doesn't think that's worth knowing.

With a Cable-only information diet, I would not have heard today's disclosure that 13 Interior Department officials who handled billions in oil royalties carried on sexual relationships and substance abuse with, and accepted gifts and favors from, oil executives. Not a peep.

I am, however, fully informed on the subject of pigs in lipstick. WAY informed.

I sometimes keep a television on much of the day, humming away in the background as I work. And all I've seen & heard on Cable today is endless bullshit about gloss-sporting livestock. To his credit, MSNBC's Chris Matthews tossed up a sort of mini-Olbermann "special comment" about having had it up to his eyeballs with endless, breathless coverage of such meaningless trivia. But that quasi-rant came at the end of an entire hour during which Matthews trotted out "strategists" who puked up endless, repetitive talking points in lieu of answering his questions about - wait for it - pigs in lipstick.

If, like millions of Americans, my daily input on the election amounted to an hour or so of switching back and forth between Cable and network channels in the evening, I would be completely unaware of dozens of serious issues that dramatically impact enormous swaths of the population, including ME. Issues on which we will vote in fifty-some days. Apparently, the executives, producers and "talent" on Cable TV figure we'll just flip a coin on those issues.

All of this is possible because of what Cable TV has become. By and large, it has devolved into a daily stream of journalistic cage fighting. (Note: "Journalistic" implies that the arcane practice of "journalism" is somehow involved. Mostly, that is not the case.) Here's the basic procedure:

1. Identify an incendiary topic, such as one party accusing the other of some heinous act (or a meaningless act, if it's incendiary enough). Such as lying about the opponent. Such as, oh, I dunno, lipstick, maybe.

2. Book trained seals from the opposing parties, each with razor-sharp skills consisting of repeating memorized sound-bite positives about their candidate and similarly pointed negatives about the opponent. (Gee, ya think?) Promote these people as "strategists."

3. Toss the topic into the center of the ring and enjoy the scrap. (See above: "puking up endless, repetitive talking points...")

4. Rinse, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat...

Most of us know this does nothing to inform the viewers. It's cage fighting with words and no touching. Cage fighting for people who don't want to see blood while they're eating dinner. And it's even more predictable than the real deal. With cage fighting, we can be pretty sure that one guy is going to get pummeled into a heap of angry meat by the time it's all over. The typical Cable dust-up drags to an end with each guest shouting over the other. And nothing has been settled or learned. Nothing.

This program has been in place far too long to pretend any segment might surprise. So on the stupidity scale verbal cage fighting ranks above even "gotcha" interview tactics. Even Chris Matthews, far and away the king of this boneheaded style of entertainment, knows perfectly well that if you get a trained Republican seal and a trained Democratic seal together in a confined space and toss a flashpoint subject at them, each seal will bark the most extreme interpretation of its party's position. So what's the point? The barking, of course.

We have to add new marks to that stupidity scale when we hear the incredulous protests from the Cable hosts that the campaigns are wasting time on petty issues. Memo to Chris Matthews: You built the cage. You sold the tickets. You trained the combatants and you determine what they fight about. Amazed that the country spent so much valuable election-season time on lipstick? How 'bout, DON'T SPEND THE WHOLE FRIGGIN' HOUR ON LIPSTICK. AND STOP FILLING THE SEATS WITH TRAINED SEALS.

Perhaps the most incredible part of all this, of watching a once-valuable medium melt into a comedy sketch of its former self, is that the Cable outfits are being used so blatantly, and they don't seem the least bit embarrassed. Used. Driven like a golf cart, played like a fiddle. The McCain camp dialed in the Lipstick flap with a degree of difficulty akin to working the garage door opener. Result? One more day to run Sarah Palin through her flash cards, one more cycle without exploring the strengths or weaknesses in either candidate's positions. Of course the Cableheads know they're being played, but they keep letting it happen because that's all they know how to do any more. My state, the home state of Al Gore, is so red that McCain doesn't even have to try. Al couldn't even carry it in 2000. So I've never seen a single paid McCain ad on TV. I've seen every one of the whack-job attack ads though, thanks to continuous free play on MSNBC, CNN and the rest as talk-starters. Cue the seals, we got us some controversy!

As I write this, David Letterman is conducting one of the most informative interviews with Barack Obama that I've seen. They've discussed the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the challenges of Pakistan, details of Obama's early life that I've never heard before, the election, the attacks of 9/11, Obama consulting with Bill Clinton... Maybe, finally, the Cable hosts will blush a little at this. They've just had their asses to them by a late-night talk show host. Best political team? The place for politics? Right.