My Unhealthy Relationship with Cable News

I have an unhealthy relationship. Virtually every week night that I’m home I watch cable news, even though I know it’s not good for me. My husband doesn’t indulge.

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Both my husband and I watch what we call The Dignified News: the “NewsHour” on PBS. Then my spouse leaves the so-called TV room. I stay.

I know cable news is bad for me, but I continue to watch.

We were not always a house divided by the TV set. When we first married, we had no TV. After a year, we took out a 13-inch black and white set on approval. It seemed like a shocking presence, almost an affront to the books we were reading. We returned it.

After another year, we bought a small set with rabbit ears. We kept it forever. When our daughter, now 36, was little, she watched the colorful Muppets on “Sesame Street” in black and white. Eventually we thought she deserved to see Big Bird as yellow, Cookie Monster as blue, Kermit as green, etc. Our son, now 22, never warmed to “Sesame Street,” but watched the fey British imports, the Teletubbies, in primary colors.

If our family was slow to get color, we were also slow to get cable. I know we had CNN at the time of 9/11 because I was glued to the set nightly as anchor Aaron Brown navigated viewers through the horrifying events, in competition with the crawler of breaking news, which was introduced as a new technological feature that very day. I was transfixed.

As often happens in television news, the older Brown, 56, was replaced by the younger Anderson Cooper, then only 38, in 2005. I never made the switch. I continued with the PBS news, then “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” and occasionally the “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.” I only dipped into cable news at times of crisis and always felt over-saturated.

What happened? First, the 2016 election cycle, with CNN Town Halls, endless Republican debates given their overcrowded field, and then the standoffs between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, during which Trump violated norms of taste, tact, fact, and physical space. Then Trump himself happened. Impossibly and implausibly, he became President. And if I previously watched cable news only during crises, the Trump presidency has qualified as one continuous crisis.

So, each evening we’re home our TV viewing begins with anchor Judy Woodruff, every bit as authoritative and trustworthy as Walter Cronkite, and the “PBS NewsHour” with its view of the wide, wide world. This wider world consists of domestic politics, but also politics in other countries, as well as books, authors, art, artists, education, science, climate change — the whole panoply of often troubling, sometimes inspiring, events.

When I switch to cable news, rotating between CNN and MSNBC, my husband often conspicuously opens a thick book.

Cable news is pretty much all Trump, all the time. And whether it’s Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, with her illuminating, but often self-indulgent, monologues, or the bickering heads on CNN, what I watch is not journalism. I have a journalism degree. Rather than journalism, it is breathless breaking news, it is reaction, it is incessant editorializing, with invited guests sometimes shouting over each other.

I mean, I get it. Donald J. Trump is undeniably the most corrupt, amoral president our nation has ever seen, a distillation of all the spectacle and greed that characterizes late-empire U.S. politics. It’s no wonder people are shouting and breathless at every turn of events.

The estimable Henry Louis Gates, Jr., said in a recent New York Times Book Review that he had “fallen in love with ‘The Great British Baking Show,’ which is like 60 minutes of Zen meditation between the evening news and the latest episode in the continuing saga of Donald J. Trump unfolding 24/7 on CNN.”

Michael Hirschorn wrote in the December issue of Vanity Fair, in an article titled “How MSNBC Created a Cable-News Addiction Epidemic”: “We believe that by keeping up with the news on a minute-by-minute basis, and maybe by banging out a few tweets and Facebook posts to enter our outrage into vast databases of outrage and counter-outrage, we have meaningfully participated in the ongoing political conversation. But what we’re really doing is enabling a kind of pseudo-discourse — a miasma of ephemera and misinformation — that sucks us into the Trumpian post-meaning vortex.”

I wince at these words. Minute by minute, I do parse our political times. I may be in an unhealthy relationship, but I hang in there hoping for a positive development, hoping for meaning, not post-meaning.

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