After awhile, you get accustomed to his face, his body, his mind. And when you see him day after day, it is not easy to realize how he has been slowly, marginally, effortlessly creeping away from you. Sure, people on the outside can see the changes. Yet you are unwilling or unable to recognize that something has gone wrong. I have always called it relationship inertia - it takes more effort to stop the trip you are on that it does to just ride it out. And then you look into his eyes one morning, and you do not recognize the man you see. You cannot even recognize your own reflection in his eyes. You were betrayed and swindled. Now, after all this time, after all your faith has been squandered, you wonder if you can ever trust again. You wonder who you can believe anymore. Most of all, you wonder where you go from here.
It began in the fall of 1985, at the family dinner table of all places. Growing up in a liberal union household, it was ordinary for politics and public affairs to find a seat at our table. But when cable finally entered our home that year, we gained two unexpected guests to dinner every weeknight - Tom Braden and Robert Novak. As I recalled, Braden had a face like a catcher’s mitt, and Novak couldn't seem to speak without spitting. That was really all I knew of them until they started having dinner with us every night. Or, rather, they started having dinner with my father every night, while the rest of us dined alone.
For some years after that fateful fall, we would argue with Dad, yell at him, and Mom would hide her tears of aggravation. No matter what time our dinner started, when Crossfire started, Dad finished. It never failed, even when we would plead, "Dad, just this once, skip the show. If you want yelling, we can argue for you!" Eventually, Mom got better about timing dinner, and in order to spend more time with Dad, I would watch with him. Braden and Novak would argue, to be sure, but the hyperpartisanship was not there yet; there were no "Jane, you ignorant slut" moments. In the television era, it may have been the last of the civilized debates.
From Crossfire, CNN gradually became the reliable, go-to source for news, good news, real news, with an occasional dash of fluff and humor. (God bless you, Jeanne Moos.) It created quality documentaries like The People Bomb, which I would use in my later teaching career. It gave us two decades of outstanding work by the intrepid and incredibly brave Christiane Amanpour. I didn't know it at the time, but CNN was like the AP on television. You could trust it; you could believe in it. It was CNN.
It was CNN to which I sat riveted during the summer before my senior year, the first summer of my generation when it felt like the world was unraveling, the amazing summer of 1989. I watched every day and every night for news from China, for the word that the impossible had happened - the fall of communism there. (Larry King was mesmerized by Zsa Zsa Gabor's cop-slapping episode at that time, proving that some things never change.) China did not change, but later that fall, Hungary opened its borders with East Germany, and the river of humanity surged so surely out of that land that the Wall fell in November. In December, the U.S. invaded Panama, Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu was executed, and Czechoslovakia revolted in a velvet fashion. I learned it all from CNN.
The seminal moment in our marriage came in mid-January of 1991. I was dining at Mary Burke Hall at the University of Alabama when I heard some students enter the cafeteria and say that the U.S. had just started bombing Tel Aviv. I remember thinking that it couldn't be quite right, so I went back to my room to watch television - and the first place I went to was CNN. Eventually, I would come to know Peter Arnett's bald pate and flak jacket. I would vividly remember Bernie Shaw's frantic reporting from a Baghdad hotel - I always envisioned him curled up under a desk, watching the bullets go by. I can still see the video footage from CNN, a green screen with rapid thin streaks flying by without end, and looking for all the world like a real-life game of Missile Command, distinguished only by the yellow CNN logo and that red line across the bottom of the screen.
At that time, only CNN had the financial and broadcast resources to provide information every hour of every day, and the ubiquity of the internet was still half a dozen years off. Until that day came, Headline News was invaluable; I always knew where to get a synopsis of what was happening in the world at any (half) hour of the day. Whenever I heard breaking news was happening, I switched to CNN. It was where I always watched the State of the Union address and where I always turned for election night coverage. While I may have thought Ted Turner was halfway towards becoming a modern Howard Hughes, and I hated the idea of colorizing old movies just because he could, I trusted CNN.
Coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial had a genuine opportunity to derail the standards and idealism of the network. And for most of the trial, it seemed like scandal and slime would win the heart and soul of my partner. But CNN held steady for the rest of the decade, though maybe a little bit worse for the wear. Every now and then, Larry King would elevate some nonsensical story to national prominence for a time (Michael Jackson, JonBenét Ramsey), but for the most part CNN stayed true to me, and I stayed true to CNN.
Relations began their inexorable decline as we approached our twentieth anniversary. Hyperpartisanship became the word of the day, and like in Pee Wee's Playhouse, I wanted to scream every time I heard it. Fox News and its progeny made it acceptable for a self-described news agency to publicly pronounce its partisanship. Like quarks, every story, feature, and analysis had to have a spin to it. Pretty soon, "same as it ever was" just wasn't good enough anymore. The pride, the integrity, and the respect that come from a dozen Peabody Awards was not enough to keep his eyes from wandering.
As the internet and then Fox News began to influence the media landscape, our relationship faced a crossroads. Fox was bigger, newer, younger, and sleeker, and I just couldn't compete with that. In less than half a decade, he went on a diet. He got his roots done. He started driving a flashy red convertible. He whistled when others would pass, but never once complimented me. I didn't like the changes, but what could I do? So I stayed. I stayed as the AP of cable transformed into the National Enquirer of cable. Hard-driving, fact-driven news delivered by reporters was replaced by pre-packaged stories spouted by news personalities. Headline News dropped its commitment to every half hour, on the half hour, and turned prime time over to hacks like Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace. Moneyline was moved out for Lou Dobbs Tonight (aka Illegal Immigrants Tonight). Anchors began to argue for their opinions.
Wolf Blitzer gets three hours every afternoon - a very valuable resource - yet he uses it to give me the same twenty minutes of news nine times. Imagine the stories that could be exposed in three hours of juicy prime coverage each day - Darfur, Myanmar, global warming, child and slave labor, disease in Africa, Saudi Arabia's atrocities against women. Imagine the good that Sanjay Gupta could do with three hours every day to help Americans live better and healthier lives. Instead, every night, I am treated to the same news filtered through the biased mouths of different "news personalities" - for they are certainly not journalists. And still I stayed. I stayed until I finally came home one night and found him in my bed with someone I didn't recognize.
The performance of the CNN news personalities at the Las Vegas Democratic debate last Thursday was utterly disgraceful. Those words do not seem to convey the gross contempt I feel for CNN when thinking about what I saw that night. Wolf Blitzer spent the night acting like a bully on an elementary school playground. He started the night by trying to provoke a fight between candidates, wasting valuable air time that could have been devoted to issues that matter, as Joe Biden said.
The American people don’t give a darn about any of this stuff that’s going on up here. Look, they’re sitting -- now, seriously, think about it. They’re sitting down at their table tonight, they’ve put their kids to bed, and they’re worrying about whether or not their child’s going to run into a drug dealer on the way to school.
Blitzer spent the first hour-plus trying to keep the spotlight on himself, and not on the news. Blitzer attacked candidates who did not accept his questions or his framing, continuously tried to corner them into false choice, yes-or-no answers, and put words into their mouths when they did not comply. And he was so caught up in himself that he even skipped Dennis Kucinich on a question about Pakistan, and steamrolled right over him when Kucinich tried to answer. To his credit, and the rest of the candidates' shame, Kucinich was the only person on stage who took Blitzer to task for his performance.
I take issue with your description of people being illegal immigrants. There aren't any illegal human beings; that's number one. Number two, they're undocumented. And I believe that the best way to do it -- (applause) -- thank you -- I believe the best way to deal with this is cancel NAFTA and renegotiate the trade agreement with Mexico.
And one other thing, Wolf - repeatedly asking people to "weigh in" is not the epitome of hard-hitting political journalism.
I was also disappointed by John Roberts and CNN newbie Campbell Brown (wife of Fox News hack Dan Senor). Roberts and Brown asked questions that were disappointing in their focus and tilt. Roberts' question about merit pay for teachers was on one of the least important education topics that should have appeared in a national debate. Brown is the one who actually started the playground fight between Clinton and Obama, which Blitzer exacerbated. And Brown's question to Obama about immigration was framed directly from the GOP play book.
However, nothing prepared me for the outrageous performance of CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. Up to this time, I would have had no reason to question her competence or bias. However, during the audience questioning hour of the debate, Malveaux would introduce audience members, allow them to ask their questions, and then reframe or alter the questions herself before posing them to the candidates.
JEANNIE (sp) JACKSON: Well, I think you're all about getting us out of Iraq, and I appreciate, so it may be a moot point. But my son's making $30,000 while corporate people are making, minimum, $100,000 for going over there. Is there any way to end this disparity in wages?
MS. MALVEAUX: Okay, I guess he gets the gift here. And obviously, we're talking about private contractors. Governor Richardson, you know that Senator Obama has said he would pull out all of the private contractors if in fact that he was president. But in light of how stretched our military is, do you think that's a practical solution?
GEORGE AMBRIZ: Yes, I do. (Speaks in Spanish.) It seems that many political commentators such as Lou Dobbs are guiding the debate and strongly shaping U.S. policy on immigration by insinuating a linkage to terrorism. As many people know, no terrorist has come from our southern border. Do you consider fighting terrorism and slowing the flow of illegal immigration coming from our southern border as intrinsically related issues?
MS. MALVEAUX: Governor Richardson, since you're the only on this stage who does not support even building a fence, why don't you take this one?
When LaShannon Spencer asked a general question about what qualities a Supreme Court candidate should possess, Malveaux tried to morph it into a question about abortion. Joe Biden called her on it:
SEN. BIDEN: Suzanne's decided. I'm not answering her question. I'm answering the question of the woman who is there. Okay? (Cheers, applause.) And -- number one. And then I'll answer Suzanne's question.
Not to be deterred, the playground bully retorted:
MR. BLITZER: Well, let's ask the woman. Do you want him to answer that question?
However, nothing topped Malveaux's hubris in completely rewriting Frank Perconte's question.
FRANK PERCONTE: ...So my question to you is, assuming you are elected, the day after you take the oath of office, what message will you offer the whole country, to unite all of us behind you, so that you can see us through this period of transition that we're in?
MS. MALVEAUX: I'd like to refer that to Senator Obama.
Senator Obama, you said on a TV interview just this past weekend, you didn't believe that Senator Clinton was able to unite this country. Why do you believe she can't?
It was the first time I have ever yelled and yelled at a television when a sporting event was not on the screen. But it just would not stop, nor was it done. CNN producers pushed in the final nail with the final question of the night, rejecting the question the young woman wanted to ask, and instead cajoling her into the ridiculous "diamonds or pearls" nonsense. The question was insulting to viewers, demeaning to the process, and disrespectful of the candidates.
When I saw him in bed with someone I did not recognize, someone who was not me, my first emotion was anger. How could he turn on me like this? And how could I have not seen it? But then I felt confused and frustrated. Was this really CNN, my loyal companion of over two decades? Was this what our relationship had come to? Is this what he thinks of me, that he can talk to me in such a degrading and condescending way? And now, I just feel lost. Where do I turn now? At my age, after all I have been through, how do I start over again? How do I find someone new? And how can I ever trust again?