A three-day detox nearly cured my cable news addiction

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Summary

When my television broke, I found unexpected peace in not having to hear the name Trump or Biden.

My 10-year-old television recently went on the fritz. I had to go three days before a replacement could be installed. This isn’t a tragedy I should like to share with someone living in Ukraine or fighting against Hamas, but three days without TV threw me off my game.

This hiatus made me realize how much news I watch, and what a news junkie I have apparently become. In this I am perhaps not so different from those older players, my contemporaries. As a May 22 report in the Journal had it, the TV audience has grown older and the cable news audience even older than that, “with MSNBC’s median age at 70, Fox News at 69 and CNN’s, 67." (Fox and The Wall Street Journal share common ownership.)

I go back and forth between these three channels, tuning into the false earnestness of Wolf Blitzer, the declamations of Sean Hannity, the sanctimoniousness of Rachel Maddow, the shtick of Greg Gutfeld. While the commercials for Otezla and Ozempic blather on, I flick through the channels.

What do I get out of it? Some rough notion, I suppose, of what left and right in America are thinking. Here, though, I feel I must correct those who say one can’t get too much of a good thing. In the realm of TV news, I believe one can. Watching the three channels on Donald Trump’s hush-money trial, I began to think I was hearing the names Stormy Cohen and Michael Daniels.

I’ve never timed how much I watch each day. Along with cable news, I also watch local news at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. In Chicago, this turns out to be an exercise in darkest depression. On these local shows more and more time seems to be given to reporting on young men and women who have been shot, killed in hit-and-runs, or otherwise violently dispatched.

The old and useful distinction between grief and mourning—that is, between private and public sadness—is now blurred, if not entirely eliminated. A good part of most local broadcasts in Chicago is thus given over to weeping mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters. A friend has given up on late-night local news, finding it too dreary to watch before going off to bed. He now watches an episode of “Cheers" before turning in. Sensible fellow.

During my days without a TV, I listened to a fair amount to WFMT, Chicago’s superior classical-music station. How much sweeter the music of Borodin, Brahms and Rachmaninoff than the complaints of Laura Ingraham and Tomi Lahren on Fox or the gushing confidence of Gloria Borger and Dana Bash on CNN. One afternoon I listened to an entire Chicago Cubs game on the radio—the Cubs lost to the Atlanta Braves, 3-0—and felt I was living back in 1948. For three whole days I didn’t have to hear the name Biden or Trump.

Being away from TV news for three days makes me wonder if television itself is a useful vehicle for conveying opinions on current events. The great columnists—H. L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann, James Reston—all preceded television news. One read them without knowing what they looked like. With the advent of TV, immensely less impressive figures followed. I think of the avuncular Walter Cronkite, about whom I once wrote an essay with the title “A Face Only a Nation Could Love." I think of Lester Holt, the main man, or host, at NBC News, who once interviewed me about a book I had written on friendship. Surely, he asked me afterward, you don’t really believe that a genuine friendship is possible between a man and woman who aren’t attracted to each other sexually?

As for the cable news channels, they offer what I think of as dueling virtues. MSNBC and CNN implicitly claim to stand for the people, the marginalized, the victims, whom the personnel at these channels, out of their self-acclaimed superior empathy, always seek to protect. Fox sees itself as devoted to reality, to exposing the nightmare of inflation, the broken southern border, the senility of Joe Biden. It sees its virtue as that of delivering the real low-down, the truth. Both are unconvincing.

Perhaps this is because the only virtue the news need be concerned about is getting the story right. The self-proclaimed virtue of its purveyors hasn’t a damn thing to do with it.

Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life."

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