William Rivers Pitt re/media: No Bottom to the Barrel


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

    No Bottom to the Barrel
    By William Rivers Pitt
    t r u t h o u t | Columnist
    Saturday 24 February 2007

I awoke near dawn on Thursday, crawled to my desk with coffee in hand, and began
my daily morning ritual: blazing through twenty different newspapers to see what
was happening across the nation and the world. Two stories immediately jumped 
out at me:

1. The Washington Post rang a big bell with the headline, "British Move Renews 
Iraq War Doubts in U.S.," and with the kicker reading, "Just as President Bush 
increases troop strength, his main partner in Iraq war seeks closure." The 
Coalition of the Leaving has, all of a sudden, a surprising new member.

2. The New York Times led with a truly wrenching headline: "National Guard May 
Undertake Iraq Duty Early." The kicker read, "The Pentagon plans to send more 
than 14,000 reservists back next year, shortening their off-duty time for 
President Bush's buildup, officials said." Dovetail this with the report above 
and the conclusion is unavoidable: Bush is throwing thousands more US soldiers 
into the maw of Iraq while his closest ally is heading for the exits.

I made my way through several more papers, including the Boston Globe, the LA 
Times, the Guardian, the AP, UPI, Reuters, the BBC, along with several other 
news outlets from all compass points. Finally, like a fool, I clicked over to 
the CNN web site to see what their daily offering of dreck smelled like.

    This was a bad idea.

My higher brain functions were momentarily paralyzed by the lead headline, 
"Ringmaster Judge Faces Flak." It was almost like a Zen koan; my mind just 
stopped. Judge? Flak? Did the judge presiding over the Libby trial have a 
meltdown or something? How was this story important, or even vaguely pertinent, 
to any kind of commonly- understood reality?

It wasn't important, at least not to me. This story was, of course, focusing on 
the hearing to decide who would gain possession of the body of the recently 
departed Z-list celebrity, Anna Nicole Smith. CNN, in its wisdom, felt the need 
to do a full spread on this random, anonymous judge whose rotten luck delivered 
this bag of nonsense to his courtroom.

Yeah, I know, no one with any real media awareness should be surprised by this 
kind of swill. Neither am I, in the abstract. A fair portion of the reason I 
draw breath involves my disgust and disdain for CNN, for the other "news" 
purveyors of like quality, for their feigned piety of objectivity, for the 
generational damage these multi-billion-dollar snow-blowers have done, allowed, 
participated in, profited by.

Even though I'm all too aware of these realities, I can still be left wordstruck
by the awesome vapidity of the "news" every once in a while. It takes a cynic 
who still clings to a dollop of hope and optimism, perhaps, to still be awed by 
the grim fact that there is actually no bottom to the barrel.

They got me again on Thursday. Hard as it is to imagine, CNN is apparently 
attempting to transmogrify this random judge, and the entire story surrounding 
Smith's demise, into the OJ Simpson Story 2.0. Remember the famous OJ judge, who
was such a focus for so long? I am perhaps alone on this, but "OJ" was the first
thing I thought of after my brain regained functionality. There was this judge's
picture on CNN, and the headline, and the detailed kicker presented as actual 
news, and I flashed right back to 1994.

The Times and Post, for all their myriad flaws and culpability, carried a slew 
of morning stories Thursday that actually affect us all. It was Dana Priest and 
the Post that ripped open the Walter Reed/Building 18 horrors just this past 
weekend. The Post drives me mad several times a week, and the Times has Judy 
"WMD" Miller around its neck like a millstone, but at least half the time they 
report the real stuff.

CNN, on the other hand, wants the probate/inquest over the death of a 
semi-celebrity to become another self-perpetuating story, a national soap opera 
that will spare the "journalists" from dealing with anything of actual 
substance. Ever see the movie "John Q"? As the plot culminates, a reporter on 
the scene realizes his coverage of the story will make his career, and says, 
"This is my white Bronco." Platoons of reporters are today thinking the same 
thing about this Smith story, and CNN appears ready to ride it as far as it can.

Can CNN turn this Smith story into another orgy of rampant celebrity worship? 
Can they fashion breathlessly-repeated gossip-mongering about overdoses and DNA 
and paternity and burials into the hood- ornament "news" story for the next 
year? Time will tell, but you can bet your whole ass they'll try.

Why? The editors and anchors in today's TV newsrooms, the important ones and 
decision-makers, were 1994's rookie reporters on the OJ beat, just getting 
started, unknown, covering a story that eventually made their careers. It 
became, in the end, a frictionless machine; the media frenzy during OJ 
eventually created its own inertia, a gravity well of salacious garbage that 
captured all matter and bent the light. Many of the respected "news" faces on TV
today enjoy their position because of that orgiastic void ... so, yeah, place 
your bets as to whether they'll reach for the same brass ring again, if they 
can. I know where my chips will hit the felt.

If stories like this are so dumb, then why write about it? I feel, sometimes, 
that I have no choice. Stories like this are central to the process of 
journalistic dissolution that affects us all. It has been an ongoing phenomenon 
that was greatly accelerated during Gulf War I (when CNN, and brave Wolfie on 
his roof, and the newsfolk in general, all abandoned basic journalistic 
principle in allowing the Pentagon to stage-manage, edit, redact and control any
and all public war news). It is a dissolution that learned to walk and talk 
during OJ, hatching a slew of our modern-day "journalists" along the way. It is 
a dissolution that grew fangs which bit hard and deep during the interminable, 
hidebound nonsense of Whitewater, Monica and impeachment.

It is a dissolution any savvy media observer knows how to label properly. 
"Infotainment" is the name of the game, where great swaths of data are offered 
in the absence of depth, white noise at the water cooler and the copier, stories
with the substance of a haymaker punch thrown in a shadow-boxing match.

And again, yeah, I know, this is all (to make a bad pun) old news ... but God 
help me, I do sometimes dream that we might locate if possible, or construct if 
necessary, an actual bottom to the barrel. Mayhap I'm a simpleton for hoping it 
might be there somewhere, and a fool for also believing that a bottom can be 
built if none can be found.

It is this foolishness that exposes me, now and again, to the visceral 
media-delivered gut-twisting cramp of body and mind I endure when a screaming 
distraction or a deadly lie is uttered, repeated, augmented, espoused, preached 
and championed by the far reach of television. Sometimes, I simply can't help 
but feel the same rage, the scathing collision of writhing helplessness and 
omnivorous motivation, that got me into this whole thing in the first place.

I do, of course, feel like a total doofus whenever CNN, or some other feckless 
purveyor of high-def late-breaking televised lobotomization, manages to 
sucker-punch my sensibilities with one of these damnable idiot bombs ... but I 
am also thankful for it, in an odd way. I do not ever want to arrive at a moment
when I cannot be moved to anger and action, even when the motivator is something
as singularly insipid as the garbage that got me going Thursday morning.

Was there a bottom to be found in Friday morning's barrel? The Post and Times 
reported that Senate Democrats are going to try to repeal the Iraq War 
Resolution, which if successful, will completely redefine the parameters of this
conflict. Pretty big story, right?

CNN's top two headlines for Friday read, "Smith's Baby Gets Mom's Body" and 
"Weepy Judge, Woozy Lawyer Create Court Drama."

    Nope. No bottom here.

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