Complaining about the news is pointless and passé. Such is not the point of this essay. These days, everyone's a reporter, everyone's a pundit. News was, however, always a business. It's show business, more precisely. In this piece, I ruminate upon the news in abstract, of gods and men, technology, and of our roles and reactions to these things. My friend K tells me I should write more in the first person and less abstractly. Therefore I give you this extended soliloquy, larded with quotes and self-inspection, and tell you a great secret.
A Chat with Rachel
BlaiseP: if you wanted me to write something, what should I write about?
Rachel: for your blog?
BlaiseP: well, whatever
Rachel: MEEEEEEEEEEEE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Rachel: and my wonderfulness.
Rachel: but, that probably wouldn't go over too well there.
Rachel: rant abut "Mamma Mia" and how it glorifies promiscuity
Rachel: or, just musicals in general
BlaiseP: my eyes can't roll back in my head far enough
Rachel: not a rant . .just a blog about how the musical seems to be making a comeback
Rachel: Chicago, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, Mamma Mia
Rachel: (the musical as a movie, i know it's never left Broadway)
Rachel: And, are musicals getting more political? or, do we just notice it more?
Rachel: maybe edgier, not more political -- I mean, look at South Pacific and Cabaret -- they dealt with racism and the Nazis
BlaiseP: Nixon in China
Rachel: hmpf -- that doesn't sound like *my* idea -- i thought *I* got to pick the topic.
Rachel: pout, pout, pout
BlaiseP: Nixon in China is an opera
Rachel: hey -- you could contrast that with "Springtime for Hitler" in "The Producers"
Rachel: Interesting -- I have never heard of that before, but it says it's one of the major contemporary minimalist operas.
Rachel: granted, i'm not *that* familiar with minimalist operas, but, still .
BlaiseP: it's an astonishing piece of work
Rachel: do you come away with a lot to think about?
Rachel: reflect upon?
BlaiseP: it's in the best traditions of opera. Musicals are sorta Opera Lite, frosting no cake
BlaiseP: why do musicals intrigue you, why do they matter?
Rachel: the way the best of them can use music to give insight into the characters' minds and move the story along
BlaiseP: well, writing about music is awfully hard. Zappa once said most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read.
Rachel: Or, in Cabaret -- so many of the songs, especially the stage version . . the way they showed by using "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" how the Germans would give tacit allowance to the takeover of the Nazi party
Rachel: enh -- you're clever -- i have no doubt you could write a piece that somehow begins in musicals
BlaiseP: yeah, but these are themes reduced to caricature then expanded in music to reconstitute the theme.
Rachel: well, i still like 'em
Rachel: goes along with my taste in reality television, i suppose
Rachel: love me, love my lowbrow sense of culture
BlaiseP: sure, I like 'em, too. Problem is, the world isn't quite so easily transformed into musical form.
BlaiseP: it's rather like the news, I suppose, we get these little soundbites, reductions in third hand dictation, we're not being given the news as it is, even at its most obvious
BlaiseP: that's my essay right there, the Musical News
Rachel: but, i don't think that a musical needs to give you the facts completely -- you get them as seen through the eyes of the characters, and have to draw your own conclusions
BlaiseP: notice how much noise accompanies the news, all those musical interludes,
BlaiseP: the graphics, the idiocy of the reductions, they might as well sing the news
Rachel: and how each newscaster has a different role
BlaiseP: and all the leitmotif, we know exactly what these people are going to say before they say it
BlaiseP: and the endless reprises
Rachel: heh -- that sounds like it could be a really good one
Rachel: can i write the lyrics?
Rachel: "Ohhh, we got trouble"
Rachel: "Oh yes we got trouble"
Rachel: "With a capital T and that rhymes with G and that stands for GAS"
Rachel: "Oh yes we got trouble."
Rachel: "Right here in Rivery City. (RIGHT here!)
Rachel: "Gonna tell you how the oil companies steal our cash"
BlaiseP: heh. See if you can find Nixon in China on Napster
BlaiseP: Act 1, Scene 1: News has a Kind of Mystery
Rachel: Would you do the nightly news as a musical, or sort of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta?
Rachel: "I am the very model of a focused TV journalist."
Rachel: "I take the daily news and make it trivial and most minimalist"
Rachel: "I give you lots of sound bites that you ponder while you take your snooze."
Rachel: So you can feel you've kept up with the most important daily news."
So why not News: the Musical? Mozart gets all excited about the French Revolution in the Magic Flute, the tyranny of aristocrats in Don Giovanni. Verdi writes all sorts of liberal patriotic themes into his works, and is elected to high office. Rossini has whole nations singing in Moses in Egypt and backs the Italian revolution in William Tell. Wagner's nationalist, racist cant would go on to thrill the heart of a certain Bavarian corporal. But these things are very old.
Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles
I use war reporting as a barometer, not that it's an especially good one, I happen to know a thing or three about war: therefore I measure what the news media reports against what I know of this timeless topic, for all wars are pretty much the same, when you get right down to it. There are the politicians, the commanders, the soldiers and the civilians. Each seems to sing these same four songs about war from age to age. Brave, doomed Paris forever strides onto the plains of Troy. His weeping wife stands on the walls behind him, knowing her fate, knowing her hand in it. Hector dies at the hand of furious Achilles, the gods' hearts breaking for him. Priam begs for his son's body, kissing the hand of his killer. At last Achilles is brought low by Paris and Paris by the arrow of Athena, the insulted goddess who had promised Paris skill in battle if he would but name her most beautiful of goddesses. The rising smoke of the Troy, wily Ulysses' sailors sail away as victorious and doomed as Achilles: these things are constants. The same four songs are heard in our time.
In our era, the Homeric gods have been replaced with politicians. They bicker among themselves and the news we hear from them is seldom of good report. They demand worship, are easily insulted and remember ancient feuds. The oracles of the Press Room emerge from the inner sanctums of power to utter cryptic prophecies, carefully nuanced and these reports are often lies: gods lied to men at Troy, the politicians lie to us now and it is pointless to complain. The gods move in mysterious ways, more treacherous than men. Yet still we fawn and grovel before the altars of their gods, loudly denouncing other gods, damning their followers. Achilles new-forged armor, the gift of the gods could not save him, for the gods betray each other. I follow Jesus of Nazareth, who was himself betrayed.
What Was Deluxe Becomes Debris
Serious newspapers are in trouble these days, but they always were. Newspapers were cannibals: where once a dozen newspapers served up twice-daily editions and extras, often in several languages, now we face our Sunday morning coffee with a sullen lump of flabby reporting and advertising from the Only Game in Town, every one of them with a hyphen, artifacts of the other papers they've eaten alive. News aggregators increasingly dominate the Intertubes, tuned to the viewpoint you most appreciate. There, you'll get little more than a punch line and a link, which leads to other links, until at last you're back at some opinionator's site.
With the advent of each new information technology, things begin on a serious note. Radio networks so profoundly affected American linguistics, whole dialects disappeared. Edward R Murrow and his boys in London thrilled the world with the bravery of the British. Television began on a profoundly optimistic note: here at last images could be integrated into the presentation. Early television was dominated by intellectual discussions, hard-hitting reportage from amazingly remote parts of the world flooded into the living rooms of America. Huntley and Brinkley were the epitome of news presenters: a pair of dry, sardonic wits with editors' eyes and reporters' hearts.
But it could not last. As passenger travel had never made money for the railroads, news shows were always loss leaders, the shining jewels in the crown of a network. Eventually the Numbers Boys took over the networks. In its early days, much talk was heard of the educational power of television. Now our public television outlets beg for money, show Principally British Series and corporate sponsorships appear with indecent frequency.
Ted Turner's CNN burst onto the scene in 1980, and I do mean burst. Raw tape was cued up and rolled with little more than the briefest of introductions. No longer dependent on a stable of expensive reporters, CNN broke the mold for news reporting. Reporters from everywhere: stringers, affiliates with skin in the game, CNN was a raucous, festive Bräuhaus of news, confusing and immediate. It was a return to the eighteenth century world of broadsheet newspapers read aloud in coffee shops and it was exhilarating. CNN had not yet acquired its liberal patina, and they got the scoop of the 1990's, the opening salvos of the First Gulf War. The acid rain of opinion fell upon CNN soon enough and the patina formed, as it forms over every news outlet eventually.
In our era, the Homeric gods have been replaced with politicians. They bicker among themselves and the news we hear from them is seldom of good report. They demand worship, are easily insulted and remember ancient feuds. The oracles of the Press Room emerge from the inner sanctums of power to utter cryptic prophecies, carefully nuanced and these reports are often lies: gods lied to men at Troy, the politicians lie to us now and it is pointless to complain. The gods move in mysterious ways, more treacherous than men. Yet still we fawn and grovel before the altars of our politician gods, loudly denouncing other gods, damning their followers. Ours is the True Way: so we are told and so we believe. Achilles new-forged armor, the gift of the gods could not save him, for the gods betray each other. I follow Jesus of Nazareth, who was himself betrayed.
What was deluxe becomes debris. The Intertubes have jumped the shark. As with the newspapers of the United Kingdom, where a man's politics may be determined by the newspaper under his arm, the once-hopeful world of Citizen Journalism has gone kaput. Ideological ghettos shelter partisans of every persuasion, and like the Ghettos of Venice, they provided both shelter and confinement for identifiable minorities. Napoleon Bonaparte, no bigot, broke down the confining gates: the Ghettos emptied out into Venice, what few Jews remained were rounded up by the Nazis, and a few Jews returned. A few buildings remain, the Jews of Venice still worship in their synagogues of a Shabbos, that the Jewish community which gave us the villain Shylock survives improbably into modern times is a cheering thought, a tiny triumph of the human spirit. But the Ghettos of Venice are crumbling. Confinement and intolerance created a community now largely lost to us. Freedom does not always build, more often it transforms, renders irrelevant, destroys. Nostalgia is a fine thing in our time, but those who endured the Ghettos of Venice left as soon as they could. The Citizen Journalist is forever in a state of what the Jews call Aliyah, a return to a long-desired homeland, only to find his new abode much less to his liking than he might wish. How many million blogs lie abandoned? How many once-cool sites have dwindled to a hardy few? The man who gave us Shylock gives us this as well:
When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check'd even by the selfsame sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory.
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.
What follows the Intertubes? One might as well ask Gutenberg to predict the radio. Marshall McLuhan once said all media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values. In Guatemala, barefoot peasants carry loads on their backs with head straps past billboards of handsome people in ecstasies of consumerism-enhanced delight. Human beings are as predictable as sunrise: we consider ourselves so unique, so special. It's an illusion, I read, regurgitate my thoughts into this article, scraps of half-remembered sonnets given life in search engines, someone else's bon mot from my misspent youth retrieved, cut and pasted. There is nothing new under the sun. I watch the news. I have a low opinion of human nature and watching the news only confirms and reinforces this opinion. Advertising has always known what we Citizen Journalists will never admit: that we are not sold on the quality of the product but by sex, power, prestige and the fear of rejection. We gather in our little ghettos and groups, mutually reinforced in our perceptions by the media outlets we choose.
All this you know. I indulge in platitudes. News erupts here and there, the reporters gather, the obligatory vultures circle. They descend from the empty sky to tear the meat off the carcass of each tragedy. The pitiless vultures fight among themselves on the Sabbath Gasbag shows for our delight. It is the way of the world. Information technology assists our participation in each such aftermath.
News! The Musical
Scandal has become the stuff of life and filthy lies our daily bread. So why not take it one step further? News: the Musical. Dehydrate the complexities from any new event. Reduce it to its simplest caricature, commission a librettist to manage this task. Andrew Lloyd Webber or Stephen Schwartz can write the score. Or better yet, put John Adams and Alice Goodman on the job, they of Nixon in China. Nixon sings:
News news news news news news
Has a kind of mystery.
And I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this airfield outside Peking!
Just now the whole world was listening!
And though we spoke quietly… the eyes of ears of history
Caught every gesture and every word
And transforming us as we transfixed made history!
On our flight over from Shanghai
The countryside looked drab and grey.
I said: We came in peace for all mankind
And I was put in mind of our Apollo astronauts
Simply achieving a great human dream
We live in an unsettled time.
Who are our enemies?
Who are our friends?
The Eastern hemisphere beckoned to us
And we have no lease a sun east of the sun and west of the moon
Across an ocean of distrust filled with the bodies of our lost
The Earth's Sea of Tranquility
News News news news news news news
It's prime time in the USA!
It's yesterday night
They watch us now
The three main networks comes glow livid through drapes
Onto the lawn. Dishes are washed and homework done.
The dog and grandma fall asleep
A car rolls past, playing loud pop… is gone.
As I look down the road, I know America is good at heart.
An unknown Cold Warrior piloting toward an unknown shore
Rats begin to chew the sheets, the rats.
There's murmuring down below, there's murmuring.
Now there's ingratitude!
My hand is steady as a rock.
A sound like mourning doves reaches my ear.
Nobody's a friend of ours.
The nation's heartland skips a beat
As our hands shield the spinning globe
From the flamethrowers of the mob.
We must press on! We know we want ….
(Mr. President…. Mr. President)
Why I Do It.
All really good ideas communicate something of their power only to those who challenge them. Proust once said something to this effect: the reader finds himself. The writer's work is only a sort of lens whereby the reader is shown what the only the book can reveal to him about his true self.
Forgive me a bit of mawkish self-revelation: all those years of terse writing emulating my mentors were only preparation. I write because I must. I always loved my father's typewriter. He was a fast, accurate typist and never let me play with his machine until he thought my hands grown enough. He didn't want me to hunt and peck. He was an editor and thought my early writing appalling, calling it terrible stuff, self-absorbed and pretentious. He was a no-nonsense man on paper, he knew his audience and he knew his authors. My old man, God bless him, was cruel to a boy who would spend his life behind a typewriter, then a computer keyboard. The more indulgent, opinionated and self-absorbed I have become, the better people like my prose. I tune my cadence to a sort of meter, for poets like Auden and Whitman shaped my prose. Eliot tells us
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.
Many fine authors only begin writing well when they are old enough to see the larger patterns and wise enough to convey them effectively. The young hear clichés and still believe them. Hope is possible when nothing has yet happened. God bless the young, but they need to challenge all the fine ideas they think have only occurred to them and them alone. It has all been seen before. Only in Jacob's all-night wrestling did he earn the blessing he demanded from the angel. He did not win the struggle: he emerged wounded in his hip. An old Talmudic wag says Jacob was blessed by the struggle itself. The only unique thing within your grasp is yourself and it is with yourself you will struggle all your life. Do not expect to win: it is the struggle which ultimately matters. When there is no cause left to Believe In, no fight left to win, you have found yourself. Then and only then can you see your own wounded self in The Hated Other. Only then will the true struggle matter.