Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Absolut Stupidity

If you're over 30, you can probably remember a time when CNN was a legitimate news organization. Even in its heyday, of course, it could be soft: Larry King has held down a position there since the 1980s. But first and foremost, Ted Turner's Atlanta franchise took news gathering and reporting seriously. When the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, the network had reporters on the ground in Baghdad providing first-hand accounts, with pictures, of the initial U.S. bombing of the city. In just fifteen years, CNN became the go-to station whenever a national crisis occurred.

During this period, Turner Broadcasting created a companion station, CNN Headline News, meant to provide a television version of the news radio outlets that had become so popular in many of the nation's largest cities. Every half hour, the station would update the top stories, and follow that with sports, entertainment, and human interest features. It was not a channel you'd care to watch for more than an hour or so, but it did keep the promise of the old radio broadcasters: "You give us 22 minutes, and we'll give you the world."

Eventually, the Fox News Channel signed on the air, with its format of conservative propaganda dressed up as news reporting. If CNN modeled itself after news radio, FOX patterned itself after right-wing talk radio, emphasizing controversy, heated (and usually one-sided) debate, and trivial local stories intended to outrage the sensibilities of the average rube. In addition, since journalism was secondary, FOX did not need to worry about the credentials of its on-air talent. Thus, they hired a roster of attractive blonde newsreaders along with some pretty boys for the ladies. To the country's everlasting disgrace, this format was hugely successful and FOX soon became the cable TV news ratings king.

Around the time this was happening, I happened to meet a well-known CNN reporter who spoke darkly of the changes that were already taking place in Atlanta. Overreacting to the loss of a chunk of their audience, he said, the network was revamping itself to become more like FOX. Hard news gave way to even more opinion shows. Human interest stories presided. The new faces coming to the screen looked more and more as though they were recruited from modeling—rather than journalism—school.

The Headline News Network has obviously taken the biggest hit. No longer primarily an outlet for straight news coverage, HNN is now anchored by Nancy Grace's "Guilty Until Proven Innocent" broadcast and Glenn Beck's moronic thuggishness. And on those occasions when some attractive young female teacher beds an eighth grade boy, the station will often go with the sort of wall-to-wall coverage that used to characterize a major political assassination.

The flagship network, CNN, still covers the major news stories, but far more superficially than before. Their analysis of the current presidential campaign, for example, has been especially useless, emphasizing point-counterpoint talking heads and pundits who obsess over the latest trivial gaffe or two-percent fluctuation in the public opinion polls. To be fair, CNN has never been entirely innocent in this regard—they first brought political food fighting to television with the late, unlamented "Crossfire", a full decade before FOX took to the air, where friendly, ineffectual, septuagenarian Tom Braden would play Colmes to Pat Buchanan's Hannity.

In keeping with its initial commitment to comprehensive news coverage, CNN hired a young Seattle news reporter with a Harvard economics degree to anchor its business reporting. With Lou Dobbs at its helm, "Moneyline" became one of the network's most successful programs. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Dobbs was a straight-laced cheerleader for the financial markets, speaking the same language as his Wall Street audience.

Somewhere around the turn of the century, however, Lou Dobbs metamorphosed into an anti-corporate populist, raging against outsourcing and downsizing. No longer a reporter, he has become something akin to the Peter Finch character in the movie "Network", mad as hell and no longer willing to take it. Since the CNN brass had, by that time, become as thoroughly cynical as the fictional executives from Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 masterpiece, the new Dobbs was soon allowed to restructure his show, and it became "Lou Dobbs Tonight". So rebranded, the subject matter was no longer simply economic news, but rather whatever happened to be sticking in the host's craw on any given evening.

This new format, of course, has become hugely successful, and Dobbs is now considered a galvanizing voice in American politics with his rants against corporate greed, the emergence of "Communist China", and, most notably, Mexican immigration. Almost single-handedly, Dobbs has returned the hoary and bigoted term "illegal alien" into popular discourse. While he claims to be unprejudiced against Mexico or its people, many of his reports not only address citizenship issues, but also concentrate on crime and corruption south of the border. The unmistakable message: there's something wrong with this government and these people, and we need to keep their inherent corruption from destroying our country. Dobbs also regularly features stories on crimes committed by undocumented workers, the more violent and grisly, the better.

But more than anything else, Lou Dobbs is an expert in awakening the inner bigot that evidently lives in millions of Americans. Playing off nativism and tribalism, he pits group against group and stokes outrage over the most trivial occurrences. If Mexican flags outnumber Old Glory at a Cinco de Mayo parade, count of Dobbs to point it out. On St. Patrick's Day, however, he somehow never manages to send one of his sycophant reporters to Fifth Avenue to count the prevalence of banners from the Irish Free State.

The latest stupidity, and the news that motivated this entry, is Dobbs' attempt to raise the national blood pressure over an ad placed by Sweden's Absolut vodka in a Mexican periodical. The ad shows a map of North America, with most of the Southwestern United States under Mexican control. The caption is, "In an Absolut World".

This would be easily recognized by any impartial observer as little more than some nationalist chest-thumping, the kind Americans do with regularity. To Dobbs, however, this provides still more proof of the Mexican desire to administer the reconquista, the takeover of land that was stolen by the United States during the Nineteenth Century. All that's needed now is a call to rename tacos, "freedom sandwiches".

Somewhere under a rock, Rupert Murdoch must be very proud.

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