We've been watching inauguration activities for some six hours now, flipping between the vapidity of CNN, the uncomfortable gushing of MSNBC, and the acrid sour grapes of Fox News. It's a lot to take in. Wolf Blitzer has basically been muttering a tone poem since 11 a.m., Chris Matthews has snapped his tether and is floating around the studio, and Brit Hume spent the morning reminding us, with no small amount of hope in his gravelly voice, that second terms are often hobbled by unforeseen catastrophes. (By this evening, Fox had relegated the inaugural parade to a small, soundless box while continuing on with regular programming like The Five; Eric Bolling and company predicting taxy-spendy doom for America.) Plus there's Twitter, which all day has been a flood of jokes, clever observations, and links to various GIFs of Malia and Sasha doing cute things. All told, if you invite it in, this Inauguration Day can be an unending bombardment of noise and media. And while that probably sounds miserable to those who busied themselves with other things today, it's actually kind of fun.
Something about cable news, for all its hollow awfulness, and the Internet, in all its quickness and overindulgence, has made these Big Special Days far more engaging than they used to be. We've all become meta critics, commenting on not just the meat of the show — Beyoncé's national anthem, Joe Biden's exuberant glad-handing — but all the production values and editorial choices and crafted themes. Switching between the news channels means you get to have three (or more! There's always the broadcast networks, after all) similar but distinctly different experiences of the same event, like a real-time Rashomon. And it's oddly comforting to see how the networks steadfastly traffic in their familiar tropes. Yup, as expected, MSNBC is a dorky swirl of chunky-spectacled pointy-headedness. As we knew it would, Fox is delivering the strident, smug contrarian goods. And CNN is drowning in the middle-ground mire of its own making. There's some strange value in knowing what to expect from our coverage, even when the coverage is of something so ceremonial and, yes, silly as this inauguration.
Obviously the president's speech was meaningful — at least in a vague way. And it is good and important that we celebrate the political process like this; an other option would be tension and danger, as it is in many other countries, so we should be grateful for our relatively peaceful transfer of power. (Well, nothing's really transferring today.) But other than that? Yeah, this is all pretty dopey. Poetry's great and all, but isn't the inauguration poem always a little dull in all its heft and import? Or maybe it's just that watching a bunch of Americans nod and try to look reverent in the face of poetry is a little funny. We're not exactly a nation of poet-appreciators. And then there's Kelly Clarkson giggling and Joe Biden's hilariously enormous Bible and we're laughing more than we are wiping away an awed tear. After the initial ceremony things get even sillier, as all the muckety-mucks travel to the fancy luncheon and we watch in creepily voyeuristic glee as the news channels essentially provide a live-stream of the whole thing. Then it's on to the parade, when we spend most of our time watching the president watch instead of watching ourselves.
And that's where the fun part comes in. We can craft our own narratives about what's happening, joke and speculate about conversations and loaded looks. The cable news channels, with their obsessive documentation of every banality and bit of minutia, help us shape the soapy story — Fox fills moments with dread and foreboding, MSNBC with Sorkin-y uplift, CNN with tragicomic absurdism. And then Twitter (and Facebook, etc.) is where we can share our version of events. Really the inauguration — or the conventions or the Super Bowl or the Golden Globes, anything big and live and widely broadcast — is simply the raw material we use to shape a little story for ourselves and our friends. The actual moments almost start to mean nothing on their own merits, it's all about the reaction, the pop culture definition of it. That may seem cynical, and maybe it is, but it's also an increasingly pervasive reality in a culture as media-saturated as ours.
So I'm choosing to lean into the wind and partake in the whole never-ending spectacle. Six plus hours of all this is maybe a little insane, but over the course of the day I've become a completist about it. I'd watch a C-SPAN live-feed of the inaugural balls all night if I could. (Can I? Anyone?) Not because I really care about any of this hoary formality. But because there's something undeniably enjoyable about being a remote agent, however small, in interpreting all this hoopla. I guess this is what you call the national conversation; it's always been around, but nowadays it's a lot louder and a lot longer. Many of you can and probably do cover your ears and walk away and get on with your lives, but I'm finding listening, and chiming in, too fun to leave.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.