Sunday, March 9, 2014

Television's dying and I'm not feeling so hot myself

     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.
     When I got to NBC Tower, it was pretty deserted, and the same guy who met me at the elevator also patted make-up on my enormous shiny dome and then got my mike clipped on and stuck a bug in my ear then worked the camera. We killed time, waiting for the show in New York, unseen, to get to me. We chatted about the decline of our respective industries. Mine seems to be falling apart faster than his, but it's a horse race, at times neck-and-neck. Good union guy. I felt like two old centurians, swapping tales about camp life back in Gaul. 
     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. 


  1. I was on Fox a couple of years ago about policing. It was the same thing. Trying to get me to say what they wanted me to say versus the expertise the wanted from me. Television news is dead. No one told them yet.

  2. But.... this is a Golden Age of television. There's more crap, but that's only because there's more everything. There's also a ton more good stuff -- too much for someone who likes quality television to watch. And I'm a person who decries cultural degradation more even than you do. There is even -- amazingly -- a quality cable news network now: AJA.

    Also, I'm curious why you didn't name your interviewer. I assume it was Scarborough?

    1. No, I didn't name him because I don't know what his name is. I never heard it before.

    2. Ah. I'd never heard of him either. From this, he actually seems less odious than the usual cable-news cretin, which of course isn't saying much.

    3. Wish you could have told him to let you get a word in or told him something after.

  3. Ooh - Ooh - I know where you took that photo! Send me a poster!

  4. Terrific posting. A couple of election years ago, the now-defunct CNBC-fn (if I recall correctly) had me on at their studio on Wacker to talk about newspaper endorsements. So I yakked on with a guy from the Lowell, Mass. daily. I had an ad-lib all ready about not wanting to disagree with an institution that once hired Jack Kerouac as a sportswriter, but of course had no chance to use it. When our little segment was over, I went to get a drink at Rivers across the street before taking the Metra home. At the bar I looked up and one of the TVs was tuned to the program I had just been on. Did anyone, even the bartender, notice that the guy who was just on the TV was at the bar? Of course not.

  5. At a good bar, no one would be watching the TV.

    the death of TV also leads to its everlasting afterlife: I have done maybe five or six segments for WTTW about various things, dating back to 2003. And they keep re-running them, and I keep having people say "I saw you on Channel 11!" and I apologize for taking up their TV room.


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