Journalism used to perform a higher civic function than it does today, so spanked up is it with gaffes, gotchas, spin-doctoring, celebrity pimping,crisis-mongering, minnow-brained punditry, drama criticism practiced from under the troll bridge (usually at the expense of Democrats—Al Gore’s sighings during the debate with George Bush, Hillary Clinton’s “cackle”), and instant amnesia.
To watch archive footage of TV reporters from the black-and-white era with their measured intonations and ashen visages—before everybody burst into Michael Kors orange—is to crack open the crypt on a more responsible, somber, and, yes, duller era, when journalists still conducted themselves as a priestly caste serving the needs of an informed citizenry, as opposed to catering to cud-chewing dolts. Those days are gone and there’s no point in mourning them, the Walter Lippmanns and similar wise men (and women) having proved worse than useless when the Vietnam War sawed the country into two with its lies and delusions. But the intelligent drone of old-school journalism served to extend a support bridge through national trauma, the term “anchorman” symbolic of the media’s role in securing coverage of the news with weight and authority, a fixed point in a sea of raging foam. Now it’s all raging foam, a steady, indiscriminate diet of excitation to keep us permanently on edge.
To pick up The New York Times each morning and brave the headlines—at conference on the risks to earth, few are optimistic, August 24, 2008—is to understand why generalized anxiety disorder is the world’s No. 1 psychological condition. Even more anxiety-inducing are the paper’s science pages, which make you want to roll out of bed in a fetal ball, especially the medical coverage, the happy hunting grounds for hypochondriacs, with Jane E. Brody digging up the latest rare disease about to hit it big, and bummer case studies such as that of the elderly patient with spontaneous gas gangrene left to deal with her own mortal fright: “She never made it to the operating room, and as far as I know, none of her doctors discussed her imminent death, then simply sat with her.”
I blame Bush. I blame Bush for everything and will continue to blame him (and Vice President Dick Cheney) for everything long after we’re all dead...The two terms of George W. Bush’s presidency have been not simply a psychological bringdown but a steady beatdown. The malaise that President Jimmy Carter supposedly diagnosed as our national condition in 1979—though Carter never used the actual word—is nothing compared with the slough of despond Cheney seems to have dug with his shovel jaw in service of the National Security State and to the detriment of everything else. Even as the Decider eyes the exits, his administration pulls stunts such as attempting to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act and to lift the ban on offshore drilling, as if to get in one last twist of the knife before Bush waves buh-bye as he boards the helicopter into the azure, unless it’s raining. It will be one of the un-nicer ironies of modern American history that a president who prided himself on his crispy optimism should depart office having dyed the electorate a pervasive shade of blue. Not Democratic blue (though maybe that too), but the blue of futility, frustration, and worry, as reflected in the right-track/wrong-track numbers. (In a USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted between August 21 and 23, 81 percent of those participating described themselves as “dissatisfied” with the direction in which the country was lurching. Not only is Bush the Decider—he’s also the Dissatisfier.)
“The centre cannot hold,” to quote the oft quoted line from W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” and when the center cannot hold, the chickens run around in circles. everything seemingly is spinning out of control, bemoaned the headline of a June 21 Associated Press article by Alan Fram and Eileen Putman, which proposed that the American can-do spirit was being flattened by chunks of falling sky. “Horatio Alger, twist in your grave,” Fram and Putman wrote. “The can-do, bootstrap approach embedded in the American psyche is under assault. Eroding it is a dour powerlessness that is chipping away at the country’s sturdy conviction that destiny can be commanded with sheer courage and perseverance.”
The world’s flirting with the abyss isn’t going to produce a picnic for anybody, should such a consummation occur, but I reckon mankind is responsible for its own ruination. Al Gore tried to warn us about the polar ice caps, but the Rush Limbaughs of this world chose to maintain a carbon footprint bigger than King Kong’s. If humanity remains hell-bent on despoiling its mother planet and rendering it unlivable through our insatiable demand for more of everything (israel’s demand for water is draining the sea of galilee —Financial Times, August 23–24, 2008), bringing down the curtain on a civilization that gave us Socrates, Shakespeare, and Shakira’s vibrating hips, so be it. It’s been a good run—shame it had to end so shabbily. Maybe our Martian colony will survive. We must stay stoic in the stark face of our collective demise, even as we’re blubbering.
More and more, telecast news reminds me of the constant cycle of pharmaceutical ads on cable TV for prescription drugs to address bladder control, herpes outbreaks, depression, erectile dysfunction, anxiety disorder, allergies, high cholesterol, fibroneuralgia, and Alzheimer’s, planting nervous seeds in your head until you start patting yourself down for symptoms, unable to pee with the usual carefree abandon. Part of the genius of Barack Obama’s campaign logo is that it englobes the sun, blue sky, the flag, and the O of his name (a circle within a circle) into what resembles a happy pill. Pop it in your mouth and feel the radiance expand within, the windows of your mind opening onto a wonderland. Anyone can preach hope, but to pictorialize it in capsule form—that was the coup. His campaign understood what its political rivals didn’t: the antidote to bad news isn’t good news, but a good feeling that turns bad news into background noise.
-James Wolcott,("The News Blues," Vanity Fair Magazine, 12.2008. Image: -BrokenStairway, "Enjoying Life", deviantart.com, 3. 3.07).