“People like hearing about extreme weather.” —Reese Lansing, evil network executive on Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show The Newsroom.
The great Jehovah displayed Sorkinian timing this weekend, dispatching a tropical storm to the Gulf of Mexico on the very day that Republicans gathered in Tampa to name a presidential nominee and that Sorkin’s hyper-chatty show about TV news concluded its first season.
What better test of The Newsroom’s thesis that American journalists have lost the nerve to “speak truth to stupid” in their panicky scramble for eyeballs and clicks? Political conventions are nutritious but predictable affairs. Extreme weather is not.
Since the day in 1961 that the unknown Dan Rather climbed up on the Galveston, Texas, seawall to broadcast the assault of Hurricane Carla, “hurricane coverage generally means plenty of reporters in the rain,” the CNN website notes proudly. We viewers do love watching our daring TV correspondents dodging flying sheet metal, palm fronds, and shingles as they struggle, in their brightly colored network rain gear, to stand upright in the wind.
The Republicans didn’t help their cause when they announced that they would limit Monday’s pro-forma session to a truncated banging of the gavel and an unveiling of two National Debt Clocks. Isn’t “watching the clock” the very definition of boredom? The cable TV channels gave it a go. They covered the unveiling, and CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield, God bless her, even called it a “critical” moment in the campaign.
But that was cable. The broadcast networks didn’t pull away from their usual daytime fare, so viewers could wonder, “Do women need men?” with the handsome hosts of ABC’s Good Afternoon America; or listen to Sharon Osbourne pledge eternal love for her dove-decapitating husband, Ozzie, on CBS’s The Talk; or root for Sherri Shepherd to defeat the host of the eponymous Nate Berkus Show in (we kid you not) a peanut butter and jelly sandwich-making contest.
Stipulated: They weren’t missing much. On Fox News Channel, Megyn Kelly urged viewers to stay tuned for her interview with “all five Romney sons!” Over on MSNBC, “All we get to do now, because there is no convention, is talk to each other in the hallways,” reporter David Corn said.
As the first wavelets reached the Gulf beaches, the focus wavered—and the cameras shifted from Tampa to Louisiana. The cable anchors asked, with the air of the worldly wise, “Could it end up as a Cat- 3?” If Hurricane Isaac came ashore on Wednesday, we were repeatedly informed, it would be seven years to the day since Katrina clobbered New Orleans. “It’s just spooky!” Banfield said.
The day’s only riveting political moment came at daybreak on the Morning Joe show, where, as acetous liberal Esquire blogger Charlie Pierce put it, Chris Matthews “got all up in the sick, smug little grill of obvious anagram Reince Priebus,” accusing the RNC chairman and soon-to-be official nominee Mitt Romney of racially divisive tactics.
“That cheap shot about ‘I don’t have a problem with my birth certificate’ was awful,” Matthews told Priebus. “It’s an embarrassment to your party to play that card. This stuff about getting rid of the work requirement for welfare is dishonest.” A few hours later, Priebus fired back on Fox. “The Democrats want to use him,” he said of Matthews. “He’s willing to be used.”
Maybe. But for Matthews, this much may be said: The Newsroom anchor Will McAvoy would be proud. And this was reality, not HBO.