Five days ago I received an email from a person who turned out to be a young woman, I’ll call her “Karma,” inviting me to a television interview on a famous cable news network – let’s call them “Fox.” I had just published something on post-journalism for City Journal, and her people, Karma said, were eager to learn more from me on the subject. I was flattered. The actual show I was to participate in was called something like “Things I Say on TV,” headlined by a woman I had never heard of. But I don’t watch TV news. She was probably very famous.
I said yes.
In a subsequent email, Karma informed me that the presumptively famous headliner was on vacation, so the interview would be conducted by her male sidekick, whom I will call, for painfully evident reasons, “The Voice.” I looked him up online. He had dark hair, a square chin, resembled Clark Kent without the glasses, and spoke in a manner no member of our species can attain to unless they are a TV announcer.
I must confess to a tiny bit of trepidation. My previous encounters with mass media consisted of being asked by a famous newspaper to write an opinion piece, which was then rejected, and a request for an interview at home by famous British broadcaster, who proceeded to take over my house for two hours then disappeared without a trace. Media people are incredibly frenetic and theatrical. I felt I wasn’t nearly interesting enough to hold their attention.
Plus, everyone said that cable news was entertainment, which isn’t exactly my line of business. On the other hand, the audience was in the millions. What if, even as a dancing monkey, I attracted the interest of this enormous crowd? Think how well my writings would sell. If I said something remarkably witty, I might become famous – I might even scale the heights of Olympus and become a meme!
“That’s fine,” I wrote back.
Three hours before broadcast time, during lunch, Karma telephoned me. To my surprise, she sounded like an anxious android whose algorithms had gone slightly wrong. She seemed to know this, which was awkward, and tried to compensate by thanking me a lot, which was really awkward. Karma said that I would be sharing the spotlight with a senior editor of a famous conservative magazine, who, she felt certain, knew just as much as I did about whatever it was that I knew about.
“Okay,” I said.
I had requested a 3 p.m. time slot. I was told to get on Skype at 3:30 for a tech check followed by a 3:45 interview. Sure enough, at 3:30 someone said, “Can you hear me?
I stared at my laptop. I could see my anxious face on a small tile in a corner, but otherwise the screen was blank.
“I can hear you, but I can’t see you,” I said.
“No, that’s the way it works. We can see you but you can’t see us.”
A minute later, another tech piped up. “You’re too close to the screen,” he told me. “Move back. Right. Now there’s too much head space – flip your screen. No, that’s too much – flip it back! And you’re not centered, not in the least. Slide to the right—”
The amazing thing is, I don’t take directions well, but I did everything this person told me to. I wish I knew why. It would be reassuring to say that it was his wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command, but the man was invisible to me.
Shortly before airtime, Karma came on to say hello. Her operating system seemed more distempered than ever, so she kept thanking me for many things. She thanked me for getting up early to participate in the show. It was 3:45 in the afternoon,
Now, you have to understand, while these sidebar conversations were going on, The Voice was blasting away at decibels that usually make your eyeballs burst. He was easily distracted, flitting from subject to subject, but always full of an inexplicable fury and mysterious insinuation, as if he were afflicted by some rare disorder – the political equivalent of Tourette’s Syndrome. “IRAN – THE AYATOLLAHS – NUCLEAR BOMBS – PRESIDENT BIDEN – STIMULUS PACKAGE – HUNTER BIDEN – SCANDAL ––.” All this was emitted in a matter of seconds.
Every now and then, there would be a snippet in which some obscure figure was allowed to agree with The Voice. That was me, I realized. I had become a snippet. I reminded myself of the advice typically given for TV appearances: be brief.
But when the time came, it was my interview partner, let’s call him “Other Guy,” who received the first question. It was long and loaded, and it had to do with the absolute and horrific abolition of freedom of speech in America – no, really, The Voice, who could be heard unamplified in the outer reaches of the solar system, was troubled about speech. Other Guy began his ritual agreement but was almost immediately cut off.
Finally, it was my turn. My host introduced me and read a quotation from the City Journal piece, but he did it so aggressively and vociferously that, even though I had written them, the words terrified me.
“MARTIN GURRI, WHAT DO YOU THINK?”
I cleared my throat. “Well, you have to understand, the concept of post-journalism was actually developed by a brilliant media scholar called Andrey Mir –“
“THANK YOU AND GOODBYE, MARTIN GURRI. THAT’S ALL THE TIME YOU GET.”
The Voice was gone. After a few seconds, Karma came on – by now she was totally out of order, apologizing even more profligately than she had done with her thank yous.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “We just bumped up on the end of the show and had to stop. Maybe we can do this again!”
I stared in seething silence at my blank laptop screen. In a moment of analytic solidarity, I could feel Other Guy staring in seething silence at his blank laptop screen.
“Well…” Karma began when I clicked out of the site.
Because we live in a Puritanical age, and because, in a puzzling and indirect way, the Puritans are my forefathers, I feel I should offer lessons. This is the lesson. Cable news, as everyone says, is entertainment – that’s true enough. But it’s entertainment of the kind that aristocratic ladies and gentlemen engaged in during the eighteenth century, when they visited Bedlam, the insane asylum, to watch the naked lunatics cavort and rave. The TV audience today are those tittering aristocrats. The Voice, with his manic effusions, does a perfect job of impersonating the inmates – and at least he wears a dapper Clark Kent suit.
But we live in the compassionate 2020s. I feel that something should be done to protect these people from themselves. Maybe an algorithm can be found to route the cable news audience to watch Duck Dynasty or the Kardashians instead. Maybe a deep intervention can be attempted on The Voice until he learns to speak like a human, rather than a kindly alien who imagines he has landed on the Planet of the Deaf. With a few meds all around, we might enter an age of peace and lower-case discussions of a kind not seen since that fateful moment, a million years ago, when we climbed down from the trees and evolved into argumentative apes.