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Ed Winstead: Empire of Sighs

The talking heads are giving us bad information. So why are we still listening?

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Image from Flickr via Pete Simon

By Ed Winstead

With my own eyes, I saw the Sibyl at Cumae
hanging in a bottle; and when the boys said to her:
“Sibyl, what do you want?” she would always respond,
“I want to die.”

—Petronius, Satyricon

Two stories, for starters.

Imagine: It is the night of the State of the Union address, January 28, 2014. It’s after the big speech but before the Republican rebuttal. CNN has put a panel together that they cut to occasionally for commentary. The network has been in a slump, running behind Fox News and MSNBC in the ratings, but 1.6 million people are still tuned in, post-speech. Anderson Cooper is in charge, and he’s standing next to a glass-topped red box that has a mysterious chrome wheel attached to the side of it. This thing is functioning as a table. To his left, behind the table, are former Obama ’08 deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, and Alex Castellanos. All of them have white mugs bearing the network’s trademark bright red squiggle. Cutter, predictably enough, is talking about how it was a good speech. When she finishes, Anderson Cooper turns to Castellanos and asks him what he thought of it. Before we go there, a little background. Castellanos has worked as a political consultant on a half-dozen Republican presidential campaigns and co-founded a big-time communications consulting firm. He’s also a pundit, appearing regularly on CNN.

So Cooper asks him what he thought, and Castellanos says, “Well, I think I’ve said before,” (he’s correct on this point, and had in fact, at least as early as 2009, said this before) “that listening to Barack Obama give a speech is like sex.” There is a palpable sense of anxiety building. “The worst there ever was is still excellent.” Krugman faces forward and reaches up and touches his mustache. Gingrich, who, in stark contrast to the other panelists’ scattered notes and cockeyed laptops, has a crisply aligned single stack of papers on the table in front of him, turns slowly to his left and makes a face like he’s just seen a sleeping dog wake itself by farting. We are taken almost immediately to another camera’s perspective; it’s 100 percent Castellanos on screen now, framing further reactions out. He looks like he’s thinking, nailed it.

For the second story we proceed, that same January night, about a thousand miles south and slightly east of Washington to the cruise ship MS Explorer of the Seas, cutting through what would have been a tropical blue-green sea by daylight. At night, though, there is a singular, mesmerizing quality to all water of sufficient scope: beautiful but also a little frightening. Some of the passengers must have been walking the upper decks or sitting on their balconies, taking in that sublimity under the very thinnest crescent of a waning moon. But a lot of them, over six hundred, actually, can be counted out of that tableau. They had contracted norovirus, and were puking and shitting uncontrollably all over the place. For days the illness swept the ship; passengers were quarantined in their cabins, but without effect. It was so serious that a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was flown down from Atlanta to swab, prod, examine things under UV light, and so on. When Explorer of the Seas finally docked to disembark everyone in New Jersey, one passenger, Shannon Blace, recounted the ordeal to CNN: “I was in the dining room and a woman was vomiting into her napkin… There were people walking around in their pajamas with vomit and diarrhea on them. People were barfing all over the place.” They did, of course, get better.

Political punditry as an industry—historically one of the most influential industries in America—operates on exactly that kind of fakery.

Both of these stories have at their center the exposure of what would ideally remain private—hundreds of digestive systems in flagrante delicto; Alex Castellanos’s weirdly limited view of the range of human experience. Not what we would have expected, in either case. But consider that only the specifics in each story, not the broader sort of experience they both represent, surprise: a talking head on a news show goes off the rails; something goes horribly wrong on what was billed as a pleasant cruise. These are deeply familiar plot points. But as is usually the case with clichés like these, they contain a kernel of another truth. What we pay for—whether that be a relaxing vacation, or accurate information about the society in which we live—isn’t always what we get.

There’s a distinction to be drawn between these episodes, too. The experience of the passengers on the cruise ship was, most importantly, honest, their shared scatology being unavoidably public. Castellanos, though, is faking it—he’s bringing up sex to sound interesting, to make Politico’s weekly top ten quotes. (In every book that will ever be written about Barack Obama, Chris Matthews’s “thrill up my leg” will be cited; Castellanos will not appear.)

Of course we can’t take Castellanos’s joke as evidence that he believes the worst sex ever was still excellent. The content of what he’s saying isn’t important. You make the same joke twice (or at least three times, actually, in this case) only if you’ve either 1) forgotten you made it already, which Castellanos admitted he had not, or 2) you don’t think you were heard the first time, and want to make sure everyone has a chance to laugh. This is late Capitalism as manifest in the fourth estate—the gauche guy at a cocktail party.

***

Political punditry as an industry—historically one of the most influential industries in America—operates on exactly that kind of fakery. The anchors and reporters supply the facts. The pundit fills in the details, applies a measure of expertise to the facts, shapes them, explains their importance, and, most importantly by far, offers predictions. Our collective appetite for fortune-telling is insatiable (e.g., the irrepressible absurdity of horoscope peddling), but desire isn’t predicated on ready access to its object. Put another way, our oracles have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.

By now I think the notion that TV news programs function primarily as anything other than entertainment can be casually dismissed. Still, they are overwhelmingly where we go to get our news—however ridiculous they become, they remain a central facet of American political and cultural life. The American Press Institute released a survey in March in which almost 90 percent of respondents said they get their news at least in part from TV, and that we prefer, above any other medium, 24-hour news channels for information about foreign affairs, politics, social issues, and the economy (newspapers, by contrast, were the preferred source for local news, culture, and education). A Gallup poll conducted last June concurred—55 percent listed TV as their primary source for news, 21 percent the Internet, 9 percent newspapers and magazines, and 6 percent were still sticking it out with radio.

That appearing on a TV news program indicates professional seriousness is one of the few great American ironies with claws still intact. Pundits are constantly, and seriously, wrong. There are entire books to this effect. Psychologist Philip Tetlock, in Expert Political Judgment, took 27,000 specific predictions from 284 political experts and found that, on the aggregate, a prediction chosen at random by a computer was as likely to prove correct as the expert’s. Going a step further, Tetlock found that the more famous the expert, the less likely they were to be right. The very qualities that make for a good talking head—decisiveness, steadfast adherence to an ideological framework—make for bad predictions.

The point here isn’t that the people being paid to be experts get it wrong so often. It’s that we, who keep coming back for more, don’t seem to care.

That pundits aren’t good at their jobs shouldn’t be surprising. It is, if anything, pretty obvious. Their own predictability is evidence of that. It’s not hard to guess what Eugene Robinson or Charles Krauthammer will say if you ask about Obamacare’s future efficacy. Those lines are drawn before the question is even asked; it’s exactly the kind of procedure you would avoid if you had an interest, primarily, in educating people about what the future might hold. Rigidity of that sort led to one of the more memorable screw-ups in recent history on election night, 2012. Karl Rove—on a rare occasion when the result follows the prediction by just a few minutes—disputed with much huff-puffery the network’s decision to give Ohio (and the whole election with it) to President Obama and was proven almost immediately wrong. He stormed around and called the number crunchers to account before being informed by no less an authority than the Romney campaign itself that Ohio was lost. Either Rove was flat wrong on the numbers or, as some have suggested, was putting on a show for the GOP donors who had poured a lot of money into the race. Whatever the motivation, that episode alone ought to call into question his usefulness as a prognosticator. Still, he’s on TV all the time. Networks don’t hire pundits because they’re right; they hire them because they’re entertaining.

But the point here isn’t that the people being paid to be experts get it wrong so often. It’s that we, who keep coming back for more, don’t seem to care.

***

You can’t mention a cruise ship without bringing to mind David Foster Wallace’s essay about his sort-of vacation on one, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It’s without a doubt one of the most popular American essays of our time, in part because it showcases Wallace at his best as a writer, but also because his reflections on the titular fun resonate so strongly. To boil those reflections down to the very barest of bones, Wallace finds that the systematized, almost oppressive pleasure regime of the cruise is less relaxing than anxiety-inducing. It nurtures the worst of our latent infantile desires, desires that by their very nature can’t be fulfilled to our satisfaction. It further puts us in an uncomfortable, guilt-inducing relationship with our nurturers, who are not in fact nurturing or caring, only performing labor that approximates the same results.

The cruise ship angst machine aims to systematize pleasure, an attempt to square a circle that results ultimately in misery. Punditry seeks to perform a similar function: it takes our misery, in the form of anxiety about an uncertain future, and transforms it into fun.

The machinery of the cruise line is directed almost in its entirety to maintain the illusion of a one-way transaction, in favor of the passenger. An acknowledgement of the fact that the cruise line wants something in return (i.e., money) means that the game is up; nurturing is revealed to be service, and service, commodity—origin of so much of the stress that cruises are supposed to relieve us of. Nobody’s ever accused network and cable news programs of subtlety, but relative to luxury cruise lines it would be fair. TV news is running this same system in reverse, throwing in the towel right at the start. Under the banner of educating us, they’re trotting out a lot of experts whom everybody already knows, from experience, can’t be trusted. If the news were a luxury liner we’d be ankle-deep in turds, the chief steward would be spitting glumly, but with vigor, into our soup, and, still, we would be smiling.

The cruise ship angst machine aims to systematize pleasure, an attempt to square a circle that results ultimately in misery. Punditry seeks to perform a similar function: it takes our misery, in the form of anxiety about an uncertain future, and transforms it into fun.

***

The very nature of the 24-hour news network makes it difficult to get worked up about, in a day-to-day way. The format—by its sheer volume—resists critique. It’s easy to make excuses when there’s so much airtime. Not everything can be brilliant. But consider this: in 2007 Pew gave news viewers a current events quiz, and then compared the results to a similar quiz they’d given in 1989. Despite eighteen years of 24/7 news programming in the interim, viewers in 2007 scored the same. Much more telling, however, is this—Pew found three of the most informed viewerships belonged to The O’Reilly Factor, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report, shows largely dedicated to picking apart the opposite side’s talking heads. The best way for us to get things right, it turns out, is by trying to prove our experts wrong.

Horoscopes are popular because they’re vague enough that you can get exactly what you want out of them; hotline psychics play the same game, and pundits do, too. We don’t want to know what will most likely happen, we want to have our own intuitions reinforced. We want to be told, regardless, that Obamacare is doomed, or that a bombing campaign can wipe out ISIS, and we’re willing to pay for the pleasure. It makes for good ratings, if not a good education.

In any case, TV news programming is being pressured by technology. Not so long ago our experience of TV was purely as observer. That’s no longer true. There is at least a subliminal understanding that, consuming as we now do so many shows on our computers, we are ourselves simultaneously observed, be it by data miners, spooks, or, courtesy of our now knee-jerk impulses to tweet and/or post to Facebook clips of John Oliver or Stephen Colbert or whomever, our peers. As we proceed through this ongoing shift from television set to computer screen, perhaps we’ll reach a point where we find ourselves ashamed and demand something better from our media lest we be called out for the hacks we are. Or perhaps, instead, we’ll retreat further into the futures we hope to see. On those points, though, I confess that I’m not ready to make a prediction.

Ed Winstead is a writer and editor from North Carolina. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hyperallergic, The American Reader, Guernica, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from New York University and is associate editor of Guernica Daily. He lives in Brooklyn.

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One comment for Ed Winstead: Empire of Sighs

  1. Comment by Krandle on September 30, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    “The experience of the passengers on the cruise ship was, most importantly, honest, their shared scatology being unavoidably public. Castellanos, though, is faking it—he’s bringing up sex to sound interesting, to make Politico’s weekly top ten quotes. (In every book that will ever be written about Barack Obama, Chris Matthews’ “thrill up my leg” will be cited; Castellanos will not appear.)”

    This is such a lovely and interesting point. Evidence of a truly great writer.

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