Shouty Heads Lose Their Appeal Post-Election

Media Reviews for Media People: Prime-Time Cable News Shows

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Did I ever tell y'all about the time I saved democracy? It was back in the late 1990s, when I found myself "between projects" and living with my folks in Jer-Z. During one of those odd-year elections that don't capture the imagination, my mother had strong feelings about a certain local school-board candidate. So on one bright November morn, she roused me from my depressive slumber and threatened to withhold laundry services until I voted.

'O'Reilly Factor'
'O'Reilly Factor'
I went down to my former elementary school and did my duty, and thought nothing of it ... until the next morning, when the local paper revealed that my mother's candidate had triumphed by virtue of a single vote.

That's right: Were it not for me and my profound sense of civic responsibility, Bergen County might've elected a junior education-board member who disagreed with mom's pro-being-nice and anti-not-being-nice agendas. This filled me with pride and invested me with a sense of political purpose I hadn't felt since successfully running for class treasurer in eighth grade (I handed out "Dobrow Dollars"). In the 16 hours that followed, I perused article after article on the challenges facing the newly elected official, most of which revolved around better drainage for the Ramapo football field. Then I went back to playing records and scratching where it itches.

That's what happens in the wake of an election, even one as culturally transformative as the one we just experienced: There's an emotional and intellectual hangover that saps recently (and often shallowly) enthralled individuals of their will to remain engaged. I'm sensing that now among my fellow short-attention-span political groupies. For the last seven months, we kneeled at the altar of Nate Silver and treated every poll blip as a seismic event. Now? There are "Dexter" episodes to catch up on and sandwich meats to slather with baconnaise. Politics and current events? Sure, right after I see what Bret Michaels is up to.

This got me wondering: How will this swingback in priorities affect the cable-news networks, the only entities in media that can currently afford a holiday party? Can they maintain their momentum and retain the viewers lured by the most galvanizing campaign in recent history?

I don't think they can. I spent the last week watching the 8 p.m.-hour flagship broadcasts on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC and came away bored. For non-zealots, these shows are only as interesting as the stories and personalities they cover. Not to minimize the horror or geopolitical implications of last week's bombings in Mumbai, but they aren't as simpatico a topic for the personality-first format as, say, Sarah Palin's syntax.

CNN's entry, "Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull," annoys the hell out of me. Or perhaps I should say that its powerfully unsubtle branding annoys the hell out of me. "No Bias, No Bull" -- that's something a news entity should feel the need to tout as a virtue nowadays? Isn't the absence of bias sort of the whole point of news reporting, even as the cable-news channels proceed with their extreme ideological makeovers?

If you somehow forget that the steely-eyed Ms. Brown is both unbiased and utterly, categorically impervious to bulls**t, the program reminds you by running a "no bias, no bull" loop in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen. Why stop there? Let's make sure there's no confusion, perhaps by adding "zero malarkey!" or "devoid of impartial impartiality!" to the show's title.

The only advantage that "No Bias, No Bull" has over the Fox and MSNBC offerings is CNN's network of international reporters. When something big goes down, CNN is reliably first on the scene. Brown knows how to get the best out of the network's myriad sources, questioning them succinctly and allowing them a generous amount of time to answer. As a result, "No Bias, No Bull" is the least shouty and most informative of the 8 p.m. shows. I just wish CNN didn't feel the need to trumpet this supposed ideological independence with repeated yips about "cutting through the bull" and exhortations to "dial up the energy, dial up the outrage!"

Lord knows MSNBC's Keith Olbermann needs no such prodding. "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" affords its loquacious, smarter-than-you host plenty of room to vent, and he takes full advantage of it. The best reason to watch the show may be to bask in the glory of Olbermann's hyper-enunciation. His cadence is crisper than a celery stick. He invests his deliveries of "Saxby Chambliss" or "Sulaymaniyah" or "post-colonial libertarianism" with the bombast of a John Bonham drum solo. MSNBC.com should add a section to its Olbermann mini-site where he simply recites multisyllabic words.

"Countdown" owns the hour's most TV-friendly gimmick, a format in which Olbermann counts down -- duh -- the day's most pressing stories. This eliminates the need for punny segues between discussions of the Obama cabinet picks and clips of tennis being played with a flaming ball. Olbermann need only announce, "Okay, onto No. 4!" and the show can roll forward like the rhetorical juggernaut it is. I'd like to hear Olbermann say "rhetorical juggernaut," by the way.

I loved Olbermann as a sportscaster. At ESPN, he broke the mold, allowing all who followed to enliven Red Wings/Flames highlights with pop-culture nods and highbrow allusions. On "Countdown," I'm not as much of a fan. As opposed to on-air protegee Rachel Maddow, I can see Olbermann straining -- to educate, to persuade, to entertain. His turns of phrase, while mellifluous, call way too much attention to themselves (he recently objected to a George W. Bush library "on the grounds of paradoxy alone"). Olbermann is clearly a brilliant dude and passionate in his delivery, but keeping up with his verbal barrage requires too much effort from slower-blinking viewers like me.

As for Olbermann's nemesis, Bill O'Reilly, well, I kind of admire the guy. Mind you, I don't find him likable, agree with much of what he says or condone his frequent bullying. But I'm impressed by how he manages to remain so incredibly pissed off, even after accumulating millions of dollars and reinventing the art of televised punditry. You'd think O'Reilly would have softened by now, but he remains as frothing and frosty as he was when birthed into our collective consciousness by Roger Ailes.

That's why I think "The O'Reilly Factor" works far better than the other two 8 p.m. shows. Its lead dog embraces the role of the lead dog. Brown and Olbermann seem to care if viewers like them; O'Reilly does not, which frees him to shout down his guests and characterize, often cruelly, anyone who enters his crosshairs. He'd make a lousy cocktail-party guest, but he's a compelling on-air demagogue.

A typical episode of "The O'Reilly Factor" consists of an initial jolt of outrage (in Wednesday's case, directed at the nomination of Eric Holder as attorney general and how he'll get the world all blowed up with his coddling of terrorists). He follows up in swift succession with a dollop of outrage (Christmas is under attack in Seattle! Man the Bible biplanes!) and a splash of outrage (during the "Personal Story" segment on a California torture/kidnap, O'Reilly mocked the appearance of one of the suspects).

Through it all, the host remains almost jaunty in his disdain. Not surprisingly, then, the only time the "Factor" sags is when O'Reilly is partnered with somebody he likes. Case in point: any time Dennis Miller (identified as a "national spokesperson for USACares.org") appears on the show. As Miller trots out his dated references to "The Manchurian Candidate" and '70s luminaries, O'Reilly cackles as if listening to vintage Richard Pryor. It's a testament to the force of his personality that you find yourself thinking, "Heck, maybe I'm missing the punch line." It's his world; we only watch TV in it.

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