In the cable-news world of overheated ranters, shouters and partisan denouncers, the big news this week was NBC's announcement that it was tearing up Keith Olbermann's miserly US$4-million-a-year contract and raising him to US$7.5-million for the next four years.
This probably astonished anyone who has briefly glanced at Olbermann on MSNBC (the NBC-affiliated 24-hour cable news channel), noticed that he's a loudmouthed oaf, and quickly changed the channel. But it will be welcomed as a well-deserved reward by his fans, who number something like two million and apparently love to watch him in a frothing rage. It probably looked like a bargain to NBC executives, who credit him with bringing MSNBC to life, creating the possibility that it may eventually rival Fox News, the dominant force for several years in this relatively small but richly profitable suburb of the news business.
Olbermann is the imitator and, in a certain way, the child of Bill O'Reilly, whose anger has set the tone of Fox for years. Olbermann and O'Reilly are both admired for their ability to express violent opinions. Rage, simulated or real, is the governing principle on cable.
The two of them, along with a dozen other news performers in roughly the same category, disprove the theories about TV that were propagated a generation ago, most famously by Marshall Mc-Luhan. Analysts, following McLuhan, argued that TV is a cool and intimate medium that should address the public in an even tone. It should never shout.
Olbermann violates ancient protocol even more flagrantly than O'Reilly. He recently delivered a hysterical denunciation of George Bush that ran for 12 minutes, an eternity on TV. As Peter Boyer of the New Yorker said, it was the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown. But even a performance evoking thoughts of mental instability is acceptable from Olbermann.
O'Reilly in his way can be just as obvious. On his Web site on Nov. 10, he asked his viewers to vote on a crucial question: What worries them most about a Barack Obama administration?
"Higher taxes, Weakened national defence, Liberal judges or Open borders?"
You can rely on MSNBC with Olbermann to be liberal and Fox with O'Reilly to be conservative -- that is, if you define liberal and conservative as differing versions of bigoted ranting from doggedly established positions. They both play blatantly to audiences that enjoy being told what they already believe. As the president of MSNBC, Phil Griffin, recently said, audiences have found the voices they want to hear.
Cable news has its own sensibility. It doesn't believe in nuances and considers anyone who speaks in a reasonable tone of voice a wimp. "Over the top is not a criticism on this kind of show; it's standard operating procedure.
Fox, CNN and MSNBC are always running short of information that can be made emotionally effective in short bursts -- the essence of cable news. Most of the time, when there's neither election nor national disaster, there's too much coverage and not enough news. A day in the life of a producer begins when she's assigned a molehill; her task is to turn it into a mountain by the end of the news cycle -- and, amazingly, she always does. A missing child, an outrageous statement by a politician, some obscure judge's stupid decision -- each has to be built into something that resembles news, ideally news that fits the opinion of the network
Last week, an American primary school teacher made the mistake of expressing pro-Obama sentiments in her classroom. Unfortunately, someone was making a documentary about the school at the time and the tape soon appeared on television. When I caught up with the story, Fox had assembled three elegantly coiffed harridans who harangued the schoolteacher for several minutes in a tone that suggested they were dealing with a child killer.
The newspapers of the 19th century, and the early years of the 20th, have gone into history as the Party Press. They were so closely identified with parties or factions that their biases went far deeper than what we call a point of view in a newspaper such as the National Post or the Toronto Star of today. Their columns contained nothing good about opposing parties and not a word that was unfavourable to the parties they supported. Their incurious readers read papers mainly for the pleasure of having their prejudices confirmed. In the 21st century, the Party Press has been re-invented in the form of cable news. Today it's just as deadly as it was when it first appeared.