The news business is like a really neurotic person who lurches from crisis to crisis, without ever stopping to figure out what's the real problem. For the past few weeks, we've been having one of our periodic nervous breakdowns. The Letterman-Koppel story has sent us into a major tailspin, an identity crisis that's dredged up all the painful questions we just don't want to confront.
Who are we? What are we doing with our lives? How did we wind up in a profession run by piggish Hollywood yahoos who care more about the weekend numbers on Return to Never Land than what causes terrorism or why people are starving in the Congo?
But if you've ever seen a shrink, you know it's foolish to blame others for your own problems. We have to confront our demons, take ownership of our misery. So before this latest crisis fades away, let's put the media on the couch. Maybe by analyzing our own strange, troubling behavior in the Letterman-Koppel episode, we can identify the root causes of our unhappiness, and begin our recovery.
1. Narcissism. We're convinced the world revolves around us, and can't get our minds around the idea that other people matter or even exist. Our self-obsession is on florid display these days, as the news pages and broadcasts suggest nothing matters more to America than the story that matters most to news people, Letterman-Koppel. One day last week, the following appeared in USA Today:
"For starters, Letterman and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves are not friendly. Remember Letterman's on-air ridicule of Moonves after his boss took a trip to Cuba?"
Note the assumption that the reader would have remembered. Narcissists think everyone shares their thoughts and memories. It gets worse:
"If Letterman stays with CBS, it'll be a sign that Moonves thinks Letterman can draw more viewers than Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, who is viewed as a possible replacement for either Letterman at CBS or Koppel at ABC. (Incidentally, ABC also plans to kill Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, which follows Nightline, regardless.) If Letterman goes to ABC, it'll be because the network offered him the moon and the stars and a bundle of money, although money is not said to be a major point. But remember: The way this has been playing out could influence Letterman's decision."
Here we see the awful consequences of full-blown narcissism: deranged mumbo-jumbo that, while full of meaning to the narcissist, is in fact utterly meaningless.
2. Lack of Clarity. Foggy thinking is everywhere, from Koppel's own tortuously worded op-ed in The New York Times, to sentences such as this, from a Los Angeles Times story on ABC's "miscalculations": "They may have also misunderstood the symbolic nature of their perceived indifference to Nightline and its respected anchor, Ted Koppel, giving rise to speculation about network news' future within today's media conglomerates."
3. Anger. It's rampant, as media people respond to the stress of Letterman-Koppel by "acting out." As usual, the angriest ones, those most in need of professional intervention, are ideologues, who view all events through dogma's peculiar prism. Thus, Roger Kimball, writing in The Wall Street Journal Online, argued that there is no real difference between Koppel and Letterman: "The central conceit of Nightline is its apparent commitment to serious, in-depth news. What it really gives us is the established, vaguely left-liberal line, conveniently premasticated and bleached of any real controversy. Mr. Koppel wears a suit, Mr. Letterman wears a grin, and that pretty much sums up the difference. So why are we in such a lather over the possible replacement of one by the other?"
The inability to recognize distinctions that are perfectly obvious to sane people is a classic symptom of advanced media madness. And it's just as prevalent on the angry left. In a Los Angeles Times essay, Lisa Colletta argued that Koppel, "with his aggressively bad haircut and his phlegmatic speaking style," has less to offer than Letterman: "With the increasing absurdity of American politics and the seeming inability of news outlets to thoughtfully challenge it, perhaps the best way to get a realistic take on things is from a smirky guy like Letterman. How else but through comedy do you make sense of a President who is lionized in the media at the same time he is up to his ears in the Enron scandal and alienating every other country on the globe?"
4. Delusions of Grandeur. A belief that media figures are exalted beings, verging on deities. Lately, the whole trade has been afflicted. A few nights ago, word started to get around that Letterman Himself had reached a decision, and almost instantly, the tablet—I mean transcript—with His Actual Words appeared on any number of news Web sites, as if placed there by some unseen hand. WUSA-TV, the Washington affiliate of CBS, ran a clip of Letterman delivering his sermon (including a beatification of Koppel) on the Late Show as a breaking story on the 11 p.m. news—immediately followed by the Late Show itself. The next day, the papers were full of exegeses of the text, in particular this wise and mysterious verse: "Can you believe there are two networks fighting over this crap—crazy, ain't it?"
Self-diagnosis: the key to mental health. We're on our way.
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