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Breaking News: There is no breaking news!


We’re going to have to get used to news that’s a lot more boring than what we’ve had over the last four years of the trump administration.

Whether you liked him or not—and I assume most of you didn’t—you have to admit that trump gave good T.V. He once said (I paraphrase) that he was the greatest thing for cable news ratings in history. He had that right. Fox News obviously benefited from its role as chief propagandist for the most dishonest president ever. But trump was also great for CNN and MSNBC. The former reality show T.V. star understands television; he knows how to craft a narrative, how to let the drama pile up and keep viewers coming back for the next episode, how to jump the shark. As a nation of television viewers, we grew addicted to our screens. I certainly did.

There’s a warning in this for the cable networks and indeed for all of us. The news anchors came to depend upon trump. He was good for their jobs. He gave them plenty of material to work with. They knew, almost every day when they came to work, that millions of people were going to be watching them in an atmosphere of tension and high political drama. If you’re a journalist-cum-entertainer, that’s the best of all possible worlds.

But we’re in a different world now. Biden isn’t trump. He’s not flashy. He doesn’t excite passion. In many ways, that’s why he’s the president we need now. After all the breathless, divisive flamboyance, we need calm breathing room. Unfortunately, if you’re a cable news anchor, calmness doesn’t work. It’s boring. And in this, lies the warning for the networks. They’re going to want to create controversy, even if there isn’t any. I saw that in Jen Psaki’s first press conference yesterday. She had almost nothing to report because, after all, her boss, President Biden, had only been in office for seven hours. But that didn’t stop the reporters from looking for controversy. And that tendency will only get worse.

I don’t blame the journalists. I made my living as a journalist, so I understand the need for news. But the Biden administration is going to be more about “dog bites man” than “man bites dog.” The former is ho-hum, not news. The latter—well, there’s a story! My concern is that journalists, even those friendly to Biden and Democrats, are going to take every “dog bites man” story and try to twist it into a “man bites dog” scandal.

I don’t know if there’s any way to avoid it. The Fourth Estate is protected by our Constitution. The Washington press corps, in particular, is singularly powerful. (Remember, two relatively unknown reporters brought down Richard Nixon.) They are a law unto themselves, accountable to no one except for their corporate overlords. I admit to being fond of the MSNBC anchors. They’re almost like family. They’re in my living room on a daily basis, especially during this damned stay-at-home pandemic. I trust them and depend on them to give me the news and their views, which are aligned with mine. But I’m afraid they won’t be content with the dog-bites-man routine of the Biden administration.

And it won’t be entirely their fault. Are you and I going to watch cable news when they’re reporting on the ins-and-outs of the Paris Climate Accords or the details of the Keystone XL Pipeline? We were fascinated by the scandals and crimes of the trump regime. It was like watching The Sopranos, only it was real, it was on every day, and Tony had his hands on the nuclear codes. Now, T.V. news is going to be more like the Home Shopping Network.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. It’s time to break the thrall that cable T.V. has cast on so many of us. The pandemic is going to end sooner or later, and we’ll all be able to get out of our houses, back into gyms, restaurants, bars, movie theaters, malls and each other’s homes. The coming of Spring will further enhance the lures of getting outside. Cable news ratings are going to fall no matter what else happens, as Americans leave their T.V. sets for actual life. Breaking the spell of television will be exactly equivalent to breaking the spell of trump. It’s the least we can do, for ourselves and our country.

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