I find myself in an ethical conundrum these days. On the one hand, I’m disgusted by CNN, the epitome of white liberal smugness, and the business model that saw them put out a press release boasting they had their highest ratings ever during the Capitol insurrection on Wednesday last, the exact sort of opportunism they themselves would criticise Donald Trump for. On the other hand, I am totally and completely addicted to watching it.
It has provided both a thrilling and fast-paced documentation of the historically deranged final weeks of Trump’s presidency, and a source of obsessive viewing for this man very much in need of a reliable attentive outlet during a depressive episode.
Being five hours ahead of the New York/DC time zone means that CNN’s weekday schedule only hits prime time when I should be heading to bed. But when Chris Cuomo is about to launch into a barrage aimed at Rudy Giuliani, how could anyone sleep? The magic of CNN is that each show will transition into the next on the hour without an obvious commercial break, so one gets caught in a cycle of exciting handovers on a constant basis. As things on Tapper’s show start to get a bit stale, Wolf throws up the “Breaking News” banner to announce some tidbit of new insider info the network has saved for the next hour. Keep in mind that literally all of this is stuff I’ve already consumed on Twitter.
Everyone at CNN is eager to highlight the significance of the moment we are in. Jake Tapper likely got an optical prescription for the sole purpose of initiating a glasses removal, a la Cronkite announcing the death of JFK. These guys want their moment in the history books and they want it now. At a certain point a viewer like myself has to ask if the moment is even as major as they would like me to believe. I do, in all seriousness, believe that it is. Yet the cynicism of the CNN staff’s forced telegenic bluster strains even my flexible tolerance. And this is coming from a man who’s political compass was embarrassingly forged largely by Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, the highly strung narrative of which pales in comparison to what must be going on behind the scenes in CNN these days.
Jeff Daniels’ fictional Will McAvoy would surely have had a whole soliloquy prepared for Trump’s last day in office. In reality we’ll have to settle for whatever Mr. Tapper, a bequiffed and belligerent anchor with a deep love of wisely worded condemnations of the sitting President, can think of on his commute. At least Tapper’s little speeches don’t feel as manicured beyond credulity as those of Van Jones, a pompous pundit best known for his “white-lash against a black president” remarks on Election Night 2016.
Jones is the principle African-American voice on CNN’s political shows and would be a solid commentator were his every criticism of Trump not deeply hard to take seriously given the multitude of photos that exist on the internet of him gallivanting with Eric Trump, Jared and Ivanka, and even grinning behind the President himself at an Oval Office event. Jones is not awful, and provides more inspired input than many colleagues, but everything he says comes from one playbook and it’s structured largely around the core tenets of virality. He writes speeches that fit within the max Instagram video duration.
Typically sat near Jones are David Axelrod — a profoundly boring and balding Obama ally who seems like a perfectly nice individual but has never said a single word that didn’t go through one of my ears and out the other — and former Senator Rick Santorum, an unctuous old-school conservative brought on board to defend the GOP party line without raising his voice. Santorum, who presents Republican ideology in a manner that is obviously considered palatable by his grinning CNN colleagues, is one of the most insipid creatures to ever grace my television; picture Mitt Romney squeezed into a preacher’s outfit with a really concerning huckster energy, that’s Santorum.
In terms of the other actual anchors on offer, they’re a curiously charismatic bunch overall. Tapper is the most watchable bar Anderson Cooper, one of the most interesting looking men in the world and undoubtedly a strong screen presence. Wolf Blitzer has an authoritative voice (and name) but doesn’t seem interested in providing much beyond a general anti-Trump tone, even on his regular weekday show. John King is as politically passive as they come, and when his magic wall is taken away, really not that interesting to listen to. Erin Burnett and Don Lemon are fine but would make more sense in the NBC current affairs rotation.
And then Chris Cuomo is just a hilarious wildcard blowhard, one of the most narcissistic people imaginable, but amusingly so. An interview I endured between himself and Senator Amy Klobuchar, always a profoundly vain presence on national television, was equivalent to watching two college frat boys high five one another for an hour, such is the nature of Cuomo and his esteemed guest’s love for their own voices.
That is, inherently, why CNN and its main competitor MSNBC (which, to be clear, I can’t stomach for a single second) are so jarring: nobody on screen cares half as much about liberal values or Democratic success as jumping on any opportunity to place themselves at the centre of the narrative; it’s a harmful development in broadcast journalism, one that Sorkin’s show only further normalised, and while obviously not harmful in the same manner as Murdoch’s FOX News channel it has similarly brainwashed left-leaning America into valuing catchy soundbytes over intelligent policymaking.
I dread the day that, after criticising a non professional politician like Trump for having the nerve, Tapper or Jones decides to run for President themselves. It’s inevitable unless someone intervenes and tells them that, actually, they’re not as smart as they think.