The hour that I spent watching "Chicagoland" on CNN Thursday probably equalled my entire time spent watching cable news over the past year. Maybe two. I used to watch more, on the little TV in my office. But they took it away, and brought in a new little flatscreen, and I never figured out how to turn it on. That is bad, I know, the aging pundit who can't work a newfangled device. But the truth is, I never really needed to watch it. There isn't anything I can't pull off the Internet.
But occasionally my path crosses with TV. A couple weeks ago, when MSNBC asked me to appear on a morning show and talk about the profile of the mayor I wrote for Esquire. I said sure, though it was cold, and a dozen block stroll to NBC Tower, so I said they would have to send a car. They did.
Nestled in the back of a Cadillac, talking with the Bulgarian driver about the death of Lincoln Town Cars, seemed to magnify the importance of being on TV, a little. It may be waning, and they don't pay, but they'll still send a car. Huffington Post won't do that.
TV used to be damned as this expanse of crap, a "vast wasteland," as Newt Minow famously said in the early 1960s, when it was Masterpiece Theater compared to what it became. Remember? Society fretted so much — what would this endless torrent of TV do to our children? Was watching TV "bad"? "Fifty-seven channels and nothing on," Bruce Springsteen sang. Twenty-two years ago. (God, he was in decline then. Age bites).
It seems wrong that we should just let our worries go about TV, just drop that elaborate edifice of concern with a shrug and move on to the next. There should be a ceremony of some sort. A towering pyre of old Zeniths and Sylvanias and RCAs set aflame—maybe on barge, going down the Chicago River, at the Fire Festival this October. We shouldn't just abandon that deep, decades-old anxiety and stagger babbling to the next—Snapchat, is THAT bad for our kids?! Maybe someday we'll realize: it was the worry that was bad all along. The kids are always fine. Usually fine.
Though we've really stopped fretting, haven't we? Worrying about the Internet is so 2003. That's over. Now technology just is. There's always heroin to worry about.
My appearance on MSNBC was dumb and brief—the host spent more time talking than listening to what I had to say, and I was reminded that not only has Fox News inflicted itself upon America, but its success inspired other legitimate networks to ape it and become shriller too. So you had Lou Dobbs denouncing immigrants on CNN. And this fellow — who never met Rahm and probably has never been to Chicago and might not be able to find it on a map — yabbering on, putting his snarky air quote marks around the pension crisis in Chicago, like it's something the mayor made up. Another 60 seconds and I might have come out with a, "Hey buddy, shut up. What the fuck's the matter with you?" I could feel the thought forming, ready to rise like a bubble in the back of my mind. Good thing it was over so quickly. I took a paper towel and tried to scrape the make-up off, wondering "Now why did I take an hour out of my day to do this?"
At least I got a ride. I went downstairs. The Cadillac was still waiting, to whisk me back to the newspaper, and it occurred to me that nothing MSNBC does ever resonates in my world. Not that what I do is rocking their world either. Still, why go on for two minutes when I could be on for two solid months and a person like myself would never know about it? Going on the program, coast to coast, had no repercussions at all. No high school friends got in touch to say they saw me on TV, the way they did when I appeared on "Oprah" 20 years ago. Mass media is turning into small media. Maybe that's good. We're all artisans now, back to being silversmiths, straddling a bench by the hearth fire, tapping away, making tea pots. Except a tea pot you could sell. We can't grieve over shifting mediums too much -- some scraps remain. There's still radio, despite everything. Records didn't kill radio—heck, CDs and now MP3s didn't even kill records. They're still around, fragments, but still around. I know calligraphers, violists, scribes. Maybe there will be enough wreckage for us older folks to cling to for a few more years, or at least the really determined ones. Or at least me. Or maybe not.