CNN, News Panels, and the Auto-Fellatioization of Cable News

This is an excerpt from Dave Pell’s Please Scream Inside Your Heart, Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End.

I came of age during the Nightline era, when Ted Koppel remade the news landscape, covering the Iran hostage crisis for 444 days. One story. The same story. Every night. During the early days, Koppel’s show was called The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage. And we were, by a news story.

That show started in 1979. The next year, CNN brought us twenty-four- hour cable news. This was back before opinion panels took over, when cable news anchors spent the majority of each hour throwing it to far- flung reporters in the field, who covered a wide variety of stories.

It didn’t take long for cable news execs to realize Americans liked to focus on one story at a time. It started with the Gulf War, broadcast live around the clock, from the time the first bombs dropped. That war put CNN on the map, and it put single-story coverage in the money.

And then, in 1995, a single story drove through our living rooms in a white Ford Bronco, with O. J. Simpson sitting in the passenger seat.

It’s hard to describe how fully captivated we were by that news story. Well, it was hard to describe, until Donald Trump put his hand on a Bible and took the oath of office in front of a crowd, the size of which would grow to astronomical proportions in the mind of the president and his supporters.

After Trump completed his American Carnage inaugural address, George W. Bush leaned over to Hillary Clinton and said, “Well, that was some weird shit.”

The next four years then leaned over to the former president and said, “W, hold my beer.”

Walter Cronkite famously signed off his evening newscasts with the line, “And that’s the way it is.” Of course, viewers knew that what fit into the evening news only represented a tiny part of the way it is. But at least during that news era, even when we only had a handful of news choices, there were several unrelated stories squeezed into a half-hour broadcast. Cut to the modern news cycle when the internet provides us with infinite channels, yet somehow, all the channels ended up reporting the same stories about the same guy all the time.

The Donald Trump era was the equivalent of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco chase lasting four straight years.

Covering one story meant that the cable news networks could essentially broadcast a nonstop, scriptless soap opera. You were hooked, your friends were hooked. Everyone knew every character. Anthony Scaramucci was Trump’s White House communications director for ten days, and he had more name recognition than anyone who’d ever held that job. An entire ecosystem of people talking about the same story was spawned overnight, and it never stopped expanding, as it added journalists, podcasters, former politicians, newsletter writers, celebrities, lawyers, and even epidemiologists.

But the model has some pretty terrible side effects. In addition to leaving you less informed, the cable channels were well into a migration from reporting news to just showing hour after hour of people talking about the news. This is cheaper to produce, and it made sense in 2020 since everyone was caught up on the story anyway. We just wanted to get together and vent. But in addition to leaving you less informed about anything that wasn’t Trump related, this new model of news expanded the very definition of news. In the years leading up to 2020, reporting and opinion merged, and then opinion took over.

This broader definition of news allowed a similar-looking brand like Fox News to call itself news, even though, by 2020, it was operating as a de facto version of Trump’s state media, spreading presidential propaganda in lieu of dispensing lifesaving facts.

Trump said he’d drain the swamp. He didn’t. But he did turn the swamp into a giant watercooler around which we all could gather and discuss the latest scenes and character developments from the show that wouldn’t end.

In an interview that would end his tenure, Anthony Scaramucci told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock. I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the president. I’m here to serve the country.”

A few days after being fired, he became a media personality who spent much of his time sharing his opinions about Trump. In other words, he built his own brand off the fucking strength of the president. I guess that’s the next best thing to auto-fellatio.

This is an excerpt from Dave Pell’s Please Scream Inside Your Heart, Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End.

--

--

--

I write NextDraft, a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

The Simplest History Explanation of Podcasts

What’s up with the News Break App Writers Keeps Talking About

The Future of Journalism

Thank you to these 53 Trusting News newsroom partners

Days of future passed

The World is Weird

Election 2020: Telling a different story

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Dave Pell

Dave Pell

I write NextDraft, a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news.

More from Medium

Trans-Celestials — An Introduction

What’s the point of publishing a resource paper if the biomaterial isn’t openly shared

The South-East Asian conundrum

Is the Matrix our destiny? And will we love it?