Nothing engorges the cable news id quite like a war waged by the United States, even when the war is only a one-off retaliatory Tomahawk strike, like Thursday’s missile attack on an airbase in Syria. From inside their command posts in Washington and New York, the network anchors have painted on their gravest battle masks and convened on-air skull seasons with correspondents gabbing about the hot action and the expected repercussions via from satellite link-up in Moscow, Beirut, Tel Aviv and border points in the Middle East. Retired generals and admirals kept on network retainer have powdered their noses and crowded into the broadcast studios like thirsty veterans heeding last call at the VFW hall to heave their approval or disdain on the strike.
Nobody projects network war delight better than CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, whose metallic and nasal shrieking lands on virgin zones of mental irritation in these times. Blitzer, the king of the mundane observation and the champion of the generic question, was among the first to ride into virtual battle yesterday. His show, which generally degenerates into that dinner party you can’t wait to ditch, becomes even more unbearable when the main entrée is war. He see-sawed between hysteria—“This is the beginning of a new, a series of actions against the Syrian military?” — and morose panic — “Very, very sad situation unfolding.” After 30 minutes of such exposure, you feel Blitzered, craving relief from vague, hangover-like head pain pulsing through your brain.
The cable channels dress the conflict in snappy graphics and arresting logos, and they make the best of the limited footage they’ve collected to tell the story. Playing on an almost endless loop on all of the channels Friday night was that Pentagon-supplied video of Tomahawks corkscrewing into the night sky suddenly made bright by their tails of fire. MSNBC’s Brian Williams spoke for all of TVland on Thursday night as he said, “We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’” The networks screened the “beautiful” Tomahawk video so often and without real purpose that it has become the war’s screensaver.
The networks love war because it allows them to dust off archival footage of planes in the air, ships at sea, howitzers barking, Bashar Assad sitting with Vladimir Putin, and civilians suffering. If you had not yet viewed twitching and dying young victims of this week’s sarin gas attack, the networks were looping that footage, too, as if somebody at network command central had pressed the repeat button on a giant iPod. Even a cynic would say atrocities deserve some reverence or respect. If the cavalcade of death is going to be re-aired, it must be placed in context. But that’s not how the networks feel about the footage — war isn’t news for the networks, it’s programming.
Elsewhere on the art front, the channels mustered maps. There were conventional maps of Syria, animated maps depicting the dotted-line trajectory of the sea-based cruise missiles — even a virtual map of the conflict zone that CNN’s Tom Foreman “walked” on, waving his hands at the details like a weatherman. Had Foreman wielded a telestrator, drawn circles and arrows and said, “Tomorrow, Syria will experience heavy showers of shrapnel and a light dusting of sarin gas,” nobody in the audience would have flinched. In CNN’s take, war isn’t hell, it’s graphical excitement.
If not excitement, then “drama,” to put it in the recent words of CNN News President Jeff Zucker. Talking to Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times Magazine about political coverage, Zucker offered the idea of the news as a drama and CNN’s on-air talent as “characters” in that production. It’s not a stretch to see his coverage of the war as another performance piece, designed to engage viewers the way a play or movie might. Wolf as your unbearable uncle. Erin Burnett as your slightly-over-her-head screwball ingénue, Anderson Cooper as the versatile matinee actor who can wrap his act in earnestness or play for laughs. To succeed, the shows don’t have to deliver. Like soap opera all they need do is make you think you’ll miss something if you tune out. No wonder, then, that Blitzer favorite line is, “Stand by.”
If cable news is just a fancy talk show about the news, then the hoarse hollering of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews is an hour-long news monologue. Almost gleeful about the war, which has temporarily lifted him from the slog of the Trump-Russia and Gorsuch stories, Matthews battled Blitzer Friday night for the title for Cable News’ Most Unbearable.
Using the airstrike to reframe the internecine battle at the White House, Matthews indulged his inner hack by reading this over-prepared comment into the camera: “There’s news tonight of a second strike, this one hits at the very Trump people, those causing trouble in the White House itself. Get ready for that second explosion to hit alt-right Steve Bannon, establishment survivalist Reince Priebus, or both at any moment.”
As impatient as a two-year-old about to drop a pants-load, Matthews doesn’t ask his guests questions as much as he extemporizes and prompts them to say something before interrupting them. He has so much on his mind to share, why does he bother with guests, whom he treats as his captive audience?
Enduring the Matthews treatment last night were former State Department spokesperson Nayyera Haq and Tamara Wittes of Brookings. “You know what I thought the other day when I heard it?” Matthews asked when the subject of humanitarianism came up. “What?” said Haq, playing the game. Responded Matthews, “Are you compassionate, Mr. President? Why aren’t you compassionate when you say things like, ‘I hope Obamacare implodes, and all the people who are desperate for medical attention to all of a sudden in this country don’t get it?’ Where’s your compassion there?” If cable news perfection is a host who can ask and answer his own questions, Matthews is it.
Bill O’Reilly seemed almost Cronkite-esque in comparison last night, perhaps because recent charges of sexual harassment have smothered his baseline belligerence. Supportive of the Syrian Tomahawking — “Most sane people support the missile attack” — O’Reilly predictably used the mini-war to relitigate the minuses of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy. He didn’t say, “Obama left a mess for Trump!” He didn’t have to. Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former Secretary of State John Kerry felt the lash of his tongue, too, for having previously stated that Syria had been properly corralled.
The formulaic sameness of the coverage across the dial last night — war as video montage, war viewed as the result of a clash between hawk Jared Kushner and non-interventionist Bannon, Monday-morning quarterbacking by the generals, the flippant and low-info comments from the members of the all-star panels — was enough to make you wonder whether it is market forces or the forces of conformity that incite this sort of convergence. More likely it’s the shortage of genuine televisable information that makes cable so reliant on clichés and tropes, plus the confidence that few viewers will watch for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Perhaps cable loves war so much because all they need to attract an audience is to blend a few stirring moments of talk and visuals together, not dig in and report the news. War is the health of cable news.