It is easy to mock cable news for its countdown clocks, endless loops of the same images playing repeatedly on breaking news, and occasionally over-the top prime-time hosts like CNN’s Don Lemon, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell or Sean Hannity on Fox News.
Yet I have also been finding some of the smartest discussions and most in-depth coverage on some of the biggest cultural stories of the day on 24/7 cable news. And so, I come to praise it instead.
On Tuesday, there was a multi-layered but sharply focused discussion about millennial women and the #MeToo movement on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” On Wednesday, “MSNBC Live with Stephanie Ruhle” took a deep dive with author David Cay Johnston on his best-selling “It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.” And running nonstop since last weekend, MSNBC and CNN have been all over the racial aspects and fallout of the president’s reported s---hole comment, offering context, history and keen analysis, particularly from Van Jones on CNN.
Tuesday’s discussion was in response to a story at the website Babe about the date a 23-year-old photographer identified only as Grace had with comedian Aziz Ansari.
“I went on a date with Aziz Ansari,” the headline said. “It turned into the worst night of my life.”
Co-host Mika Brzezinski led the discussion joined by two guests, Bari Weiss, a staff writer and editor for the Opinion section of The New York Times, and Heather McGhee, president of Demos, a progressive think tank in New York.
Weiss had written a piece in response to the Babe story titled “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” In it, she called the post at Babe “arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October.
Her reason: “It transforms what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness.”
“Aziz Ansari sounds as if he were aggressive and selfish and obnoxious that night ,” she wrote in The Times. “But the solution to these problems does not begin with women torching men for failing to understand their ‘nonverbal cues.’ It is for women to be more verbal. It’s to say, ‘This is what turns me on.’ It’s to say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ … The single most distressing thing to me about this story is that the only person with any agency in the story seems to be Aziz Ansari. The woman is merely acted upon.”
When asked by Brzezinski to elaborate, Weiss said, “I know I’ll get crushed for saying this, but it’s true: Yes, he’s a celebrity. Yes, he has more money. But he has no power over you. He has no power over your job, your future, anything. She could just get up and leave. And having been in similar situations myself, as has every breathing woman on the planet that I know, it’s a hard thing to do. So, I’m not blaming her for not doing it. I’m not blaming her for a night of bad sex. The problem is that grouping this story in with what we’re talking about with #MeToo is extremely problematic.”
Because my beat is media, I have been writing a lot about sexual harassment and assault since the fall of Bill Cosby from his pedestal as “America’s Dad.” I have been writing and talking about Fox News as a sick and predatory culture for more than two years — well before the public disgracing of Roger Ailes. I saw what was happening as an epic cultural moment, a rolling back of patriarchy itself.
But I had mainly thought about it as a matter of power and gender in the workplace. That conversation between Weiss and Brzezinski got me thinking about it in terms of dating and millennials, and it made me appreciate the multiplicity of voices in the movement and the way some were starting to clash in part as a result of generational and other differences. I wondered how that would affect what I think is one of the the most important movements of my lifetime.
That’s a lot of thinking for a segment on a cable TV show at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning to trigger.
But it got better yet when Brzezinski brought McGhee into the conversation.
“So, I think the #MeToo movement still has a lot more work to do,” she said, pointing the discussion back to the workplace and power. “Workplaces are still phenomenally unequal. Pay disparity is still incredibly real, particularly outside the industries that get all the spotlight. … And it is so important we keep our eye on the ball.”
Then she went back to the piece by Weiss and took it a couple of cuts deeper, saying, “I also think as a millennial woman, that our sex culture … has been broken. And I think, frankly, it’s been broken by some of the same forces that have broken our larger economy. The commodification of people. The fact that you can swipe left or right over faces [on a screen] as if they were just products.”
That’s a statement that will get you to stop eating your Wheaties and head for the Internet to find out more about McGhee — as well as the articles at Babe and the Times.
Wednesday morning it was more of the same when Ruhle interviewed Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter, about his book.
I love Ruhl’s energy and focus. After briefly explaining how Team Trump is shredding the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Ruhle went straight to the bottom line asking Johnston to explain what he thinks the Trump administration is doing to America that’s so bad.
“Well, in journalism we tend to cover the issues at the White House,” he said. “We’re not out covering the government agencies. And the Trump administration has loosed political termites into the agencies that are eating away at the structure of our government. So, for example, the Obama administration was putting in a regulation to test bus drivers, truck drivers and train operators for sleep apnea. We’ve had these horrible accidents where you fall asleep and there’s a crash. We’re not going to have that rule, Trump’s decided. Well, people are going to die because of this.”
As Ruhle and Johnston talked about regulations as “protections” for citizens, I was already on my computer ordering the book.
I have been writing for months about Ajit Pai, whom Trump named head of the Federal Communications Commission, and the way the new chairman was shedding regulations on everything from net neutrality to how many American homes one TV station group would be allowed to reach. That’s what Pai was: one of Trump’s termites eating away at government and the safeguards put in place by the 1934 Communications Act to try and make media serve the public rather than exploiting it on behalf of giant corporations.
In a 6-minute-and-14-second conversation, Ruhle and Johnston laid out the larger picture within which the sad saga of the FCC in 2017-2018 was playing out.
CNN was outstanding in presenting the larger picture on Trump’s reportedly calling African nations s---hole countries in a White House meeting Jan. 12. From the time it independently confirmed the story first reported by The Washington Post, CNN was clear that the problem was not Trump’s vulgarity, it was the racist characterization of African nations that way.
And from its first reports, CNN was also offering a concise history of similar comments by Trump showing how the vulgar characterization fit a disturbing pattern— from him calling Mexican immigrants rapists, to saying there were “some very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville in August.
Last Sunday, Jones surgically continued the critique, explaining how Trump’s words were not just racist, they were inaccurate. A higher percentage of African immigrants have college degrees than do Americans, Jones explained: “He’s dealing with a stereotype from his childhood that has … little relationship to what’s going on now.”
It is important to note almost everything that I have praised here involved cable feeding off original work done in other media, especially legacy print — like The Post breaking the s---hole story, or Johnston’s book serving as catalyst for a discussion about what the loss of regulatory protections could mean to our lives.
But no medium stands dominant in the digitally driven information ecosystem; we are all feeding off and into others as screens converge. And expanding the audience for Johnston’s message that people will die as a result of Trump’s termites certainly seems like cable TV doing the work of democracy to me.
I can live with a few countdown clocks in exchange for that.