Part 1—The dumbness of the whale: In this morning’s New York Times, Alessandra Stanley describes the intellectual heft of CBS This Morning, which competes each day with Good Morning America and with the Today show.
Stanley’s terms of praise may not seem wholly reassuring. The CBS program “makes a point of offering fewer shark attacks, cute baby videos, celebrity gossip tidbits and diet tips than the other two network shows,” she somewhat peculiarly says.
CBS offers fewer shark attacks! This aligns with Stanley’s terms of praise for Jake Tapper’s new 4 PM program on CNN. According to Stanley, Tapper “has proved that it’s possible to create an afternoon news show that is intelligent, nonideological and not horribly boring.”
“Not horribly boring—fewer attacks!” In effect, this is the upper-end press corps’ version of “Tastes great—less filling.” In her formulation, Stanley praises CBS for presenting fewer attacks. But the specter of vast boredom does continue to loom.
Stanley is one of Maureen Dowd’s friends. It is the simpering of the latter which best defines the intellectual horizon of the modern press guild.
That said, Stanley’s piece provides an overview of an array of major news programs. In the process, she employs a modern symbol of the guild’s dumbness—its seasonal love for the eyeball-grabbing, time-killing shark attack.
The shark attack achieved iconic status in the summer of 2001. As Osama bin Laden continued to plan his own attack, the “press corps” was busily killing time with thrilling tales about Gary Condit—and with those shark attacks.
The cable thrill ride about Vile Condit was fueled by two kinds of facts—invented and withheld. Four days after bin Laden struck, Frank Rich lamented the way the summer had been spent in thrall to the Condit thrill ride and those shark attacks:
RICH (9/15/01): We live in a different America today than we did only the day before Tuesday. Yes, as it's incanted hourly, we have lost our untroubled freedom of movement that we consider a birthright. We have lost our illusion of impregnability. But beneath those visceral imperatives an entire culture has been transformed. This week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream, even as it dumps us into an uncertain future we had never bargained for.Rich failed to mention other causes for “the great shark scare of 2001.” He failed to mention the monumental dumbness and ennui which characterize his upper-end colleagues—their deplorable distance from the real world, their desire to throw some shit on the screen so they can speed out to the Hamptons.
The dream was simple—that we could have it all without having to pay any price, and that national suffering of almost any kind could be domesticated into an experience of virtual terror akin to a theme park ride. The first part of that dream had already started to collapse with the fall of the stock market, the rise in unemployment and the evaporation of the surplus, well before terrorists achieved the literal annihilation of the most commanding edifice of American capitalism.
But the dream's second part was still going strong right until Tuesday. The previously planned cover that People magazine scrapped that afternoon to make way for the thousands dead was yet another story about shark attacks. Never mind that the rate of shark attacks has been routine this year, and that sharks are a statistically minuscule cause of mortality at any time. (There have been at most two deaths in any year since 1990.) The great shark scare of 2001—already speeding to the dustbin of history, along with such other summer ephemera as Gary Condit, Robert Blake and Lizzie Grubman—was typical of an age in which we inflated troublesome but passing crises into catastrophes that provided the illusion of a national test of character, or some kind of moral equivalent of war, but in fact were for most of us merely invitations to indulge in cost-free hyperventilation.
Did September 11 rouse the press corps from its decade-long dream? Had “an entire culture” really been transformed? By June 2006, Rich was back to clowning around with Don Imus, reworking the dumbest possible scripts from the long decade of Clinton/Gore-hating—the decade which had put the thrill in the (largely invented) tales about Condit’s intern.
Within the culture of the press corps, very little actually changed after September 11. But in the moment, the shark attack became an enduring symbol of press corps inanity.
Stanley uses that symbol today in praise of CBS This Morning. The program offers fewer attacks, Stanley drolly says.
We’ll guess that the shark attacks are fewer on all network news shows now. That said, we’ve been struck in the past week by the dumbness of the whale—by the ubiquity of the press corps’ devotion to thoroughly fatuous work.
We’ve seen the amazing dumbness on Fox—and we’ve seen the dumbness on MSNBC. Yesterday, the dumbness was everywhere we looked as the press corps staged an emerging seasonal variant on the old shark attack.
This emerging seasonal variant involved an attack on Marissa Powell, a 21-year-old woman who is the reigning Miss Utah. The attack was general over the press corps as empty-headed pseudo-journalists found new ways to kill time while pleasing readers and/or viewers and capturing their eyeballs.
This is becoming a seasonal favorite, a version of the discredited shark attack. As we watched the attack unfold, we were struck, as we often are, by the dumbness of the press corps, a dumbness which vastly outstripped the dumbness attributed to the beauty contestant.
Melville cited the whiteness of the whale; we’ll recommend its dumbness. All week long, we’ll marvel at the dumbness it has displayed just in the past week.
This dumbness has swallowed real news topics; it has also created the kinds of pursuits which take the place of real news. Tomorrow, we’ll start with the dumbness of the whale as it launched its shark attack against Miss Utah, who the sharks all agreed was pathetic.
Miss Utah didn’t know what to say when asked a particular question this weekend. Given the dumbness of the whale, the press corps didn’t notice how dumb the question actually was. Nor did they recall the way one of their resident geniuses bungled the very same topic in April of last year.
Shark attacks are a punch line now, but the dumbness of the whale persists. Your nation’s intellectual culture is virtually gone.
Within the guild, few people are going to notice.
Tomorrow: The dumbness of the attacks