Political hysteria hits new heights

Move over, Howard Beale: I’m as mad as hell and not sure I can take it until November.

Twin tentpoles of hysteria, the presidential election and Wall Street’s economic crisis/bailout, have sent cable news — hardly a model of sobriety and restraint in the first place — tumbling over the precipice. As examples of inanity pile up, the mind reels at how low they’ll sink with more than three weeks to go until the vote.

There’s no single offender, but almost every day a spin around the dial yields fresh outrages. Here’s just a sampling of observations from the last few weeks:

  • MSNBC staging its pre-debate coverage on an outdoor set that appears directly patterned after ESPN’s Saturday-morning college football kickoff show, complete with screaming crowds brandishing signs. On the plus side, the channel might finally have found a venue where Chris Matthews isn’t hands-down the most obnoxious person onscreen.

  • CNN running a distracting voter-response graph throughout the debates whose fluctuations resemble an EKG, or maybe the worms in “Dune.” As if that weren’t enough, the visual assault includes real-time analyst scorecards that could easily be confused for a baseball box score. At one point, it looked as if Barack Obama had forced John McCain to hit into a 6-4-3 double play.

  • Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly staggering from self-aggrandizement toward full-blown self-parody, engaging in a spittle-spraying shouting match with Congressman Barney Frank during which the host bellowed “You’re a coward!” Is this a talk program, or mixed-martial arts?

  • Pundits set the bar so low for Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin that her ability to complete a 90-minute debate without humiliating herself was hailed as a breakthrough. CNN’s talking heads fed this mindset prior to the event, until analyst Jeffrey Toobin interrupted by asking, “Who are we to say where the bar is? I think this is (the campaign’s) job to say whether she’s capable of being vice president and president of the United States.” Bingo.

  • In a “shoot the messenger” attack, conservatives launched a hysterical preemptive strike against debate moderator Gwen Ifill in a transparent attempt to discredit her in case Palin performed poorly.

  • Said debate drawing more viewers than either of the presidential debates — which is a bit like more people watching the cartoon short than the feature presentation. The inflated tune-in was attributable to people anticipating a train wreck, only to be disappointed by the lack of a total meltdown. With that, on Oct. 2, 2008, political coverage officially became indistinguishable from reality TV.

  • Endless cable repetition of Tina Fey’s dead-on Palin impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” as a surrogate to illustrate the Alaska governor’s rhetorical shortcomings, providing cover for journalists unable or unwilling to articulate such misgivings themselves.

  • Breathless analysis of every dubious charge and countercharge in the race, prompting Time columnist Joe Klein to accurately observe that news outlets justify diving into the mud — even when they know allegations are misleading or bogus — by saying that while it’s a crock, “the splatter pattern is interesting.”

  • People turning to CNBC in record numbers for information about a financial crisis that nobody there saw coming.

  • Fox News daytime anchor Jane Skinner throwing to Fox Business Network’s Liz Claman for an update regarding where the tumbling stock market is heading by saying, “If anybody knows, she does,” and later introducing Neil Cavuto by calling him an “all-around super-smart guy.” Predicated on what, exactly, inasmuch as Fox didn’t see the meltdown coming, either.

  • CNBC “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer’s urging people to “take your money out of the stock market right now” on NBC’s “Today.” To appreciate the full effect of this about-face, watch this moment of contrition after wading through medleys of YouTube clips where Cramer rhapsodized about the market’s unbridled growth.

  • Fox News’ Sean Hannity repeatedly ranting that “Journalism is dead” to deflect any criticism of the GOP ticket, ignoring the harmful consequences toward civility or objective fact in continuing to promote this shrill, self-serving line of attack.

Politicians often talk about campaigns springing an October surprise. Yet sadly cable news’ market-like dive into the autumnal mulch pile has been all too predictable.

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