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I have recently come to hate Wolf Blitzer’s voice. I didn’t used to hate it, but now I do.
Before I came to hate Wolf Blitzer’s voice the only TV performer’s voice I really hated was George Bush’s.
I didn’t hate George Bush’s voice all the time. When he read speeches crafted for him by Karen Hughes I hated what he was saying, but not so much how he was saying it. That’s because Karen Hughes is one of the few speechwriters who could get him to utter words and phrases the way people normally utter them in English–stopping briefly where the text has a comma or semicolon and a little longer where it has a period.
When he’s speaking without Karen Hughes’s script, Bush usually talks in four- or five-syllable bursts, with the caesurae coming at points there is no reason for a pause. There is no link between phrase and content, but he hits those dead stops and his eyes dart left and right over that smug born-again grin as if there were. It drives me nuts, that dissonance between George
Bush’s content and phrases. Watching and listening to unscripted Bush is like being the victim of some mad disco DJ who keeps stopping the disk when everybody is still moving and then starts it again before anybody has figured out where to go next. Neither Bush nor the mad disco DJ give a damn where you are. It’s all in terms of some inner beat only they can hear, one that wouldn’t make sense to you even if they told you about it.
Wolf Blitzer’s voice is a lot like that, only with him it’s the punch rather than the pause. Unlike Bush, Blitzer can utter an unscripted and unrehearsed complex sentence. He can utter an unscripted and unrehearsed paragraph. Wolf Blitzer is a very intelligent, informed and articulate man.
But, when he’s on camera, all of his sentences have the same number of punches, no matter what the substance. Bush has irrelevant silence; Blitzer has irrelevant punch. It’s like they went to the same elocution school but reversed the polarity.
Blitzer has the same velocity, the same hysteria, the same triple stress in every phrase. If I were a musician scoring his voice, the bars would be perfectly regular, the tempo allegro or presto, and I would have at least one fortissimo notation in every single measure. Bam! bam! bam! bam! bam!
Wolf Blitzer is not like that in conversation. In conversation he’s like you or me, with ordinary major and minor stresses, inflected and uninflected syllables, and with phrases of varying duration. I’ve listened to him take a few cell phone calls: there too, his voice is like anyone else on a cell phone. The driving relentless voice is Wolf Blitzer’s on-camera television voice. That voice and velocity and stress pattern belongs to his on-camera persona.
You’re maybe thinking,"Well, Jackson, if you don’t like Wolf Blitzer’s voice you don’t have to turn on the tv." I hardly ever turn on the tv. Most of the time I have the experience of Wolf Blitzer’s voice only when I go to the kitchen to get coffee or take a break from working at my desk elsewhere in the house. My wife likes to work in the kitchen. She is capable of sitting at the kitchen table and reading the newspapers, grading exams, or getting ready for class while the tv is on. I am incapable of ignoring the images and voices. When I come into that kitchen from the other part of the house I hear the punch punch punch in Wolf Blitzer’s voice before I get close enough to make any sense at all of his words. For Diane, I suppose it’s like elevator music; for me it’s like somebody doing angry carpentry in the next apartment or someone working with a pneumatic jack down the block..
I became aware of the newsreaders’ punching technique at the movies. William Hurt’s character Tom Grunick tries unsuccessfully to teach it to Albert Brooks’ neurotic Aaron Altman in James L. Brook’s Broadcast News (1987).
"And try to punch one word or phrase in every sentence," Grunick tells his hapless friend. "Punch one idea a story. Punch!"
When he’s on camera, Wolf Blitzer is punching all the time. It matters not one iota what the story is. Sometimes the subject deserves punching: major awful things are indeed happening out there, halfway around the world, where the holy war, the terrible jihad of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld is being executed. But just as often the subject could have been dealt with in an uninflected aside. It matters not: Wolf Blitzer will fill the time segment with the same number of words, the same number of punches, the same passionate intensity.
A humvee went off the road? a Huey went down killing all aboard? bombs destroyed a market where civilians were shopping for food? Rumsfeld and the generals say the war is going well? food and water are being offloaded at Iraqi port? the Brits have something to say? It’s all punched exactly the same, it’s all of equivalent value.
Cut for a few minutes to the commercials (a huge portion which seem to be for garden or pharmaceutical products) or to the guy back in CNN stateside HQ with a tabletop mockup of the war zone, a pointer, and a general as his foil or respondent, or cut to Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference doing his
Claude Rains imitation ("You ask me THAT? I’m shocked! SHOCKED!?) and then cut back to Wolf Blitzer with those slightly-out-of-focus Kuwait City minarets over his shoulder and it’s as if the camera had never cut away. No matter what the subject: bam! bam! bam! bam! bam!
While Blitzer’s voice punches away, headlines of disasters on the battlefield and elsewhere crawl telegraphically across the bottom of the screen, along with the single constant in the CNN universe, the phrase "CNN the most trusted name in news." It appears down there in the telegraphic crawl, as if it were the same order of fact and deserved the same kind of belief as the number of dead reported just before and the number of bomber sorties flown against Baghdad reported just after.
And when there is no new news for a minute or so? Then Blitzer asks the "CNN Web question of the day," which on Sunday was, "What’s the biggest threat to Coalition forces in Iraq? Friendly fire? Weapons of mass destruction?" There was a third alternative I didn’t write down and forgot. In what world of sane journalism is such a question subject to a vote by members of a television audience every one of whom is ignorant of every fact at play? Why would "the most trusted name in news" waste time pooling such ignorance, processing it in its computers, making charts and graphs of the results? Why would "the most trusted name in news" give currency to the idiotic notion that people of good will can vote on facts?
Before we got any answers, there was another cut to commercials for pharmaceuticals or garden products, after which Blitzer read questions and emails from audience with exactly the same stresses, same velocity, same im plication of significance he earlier reported battlefield casualties and statements by presidents of nations and leaders of armies.
There is no difference, no discrimination. CNN is a world of equal-opportunity information. Facts and pooled ignorance, off-the-wall opinion, all are equal in the carnival of 24/7 reporting.
Anyone who has ever taken high school physics can recognize what is going on. It’s all about gas. A gas will always expand to fill whatever container it occupies. Put the same amount of gas in a little container and a big container and the gas will fill either. The only difference is the distance between gas molecules and pressure in the container. The gas couldn’t care less. It has no shape, no form, no structural identity of its own. The only shape comes from the container, the space available to be filled.
Jim Lehrer, in his three- or four-minute summary at the top of "Newshour" provides just about everything you might have learned in a full day watching CNN or any of its less competent clones. A few minutes spent reading the day’s briefs on the Guardian’s website will give you a wider range of far more accurate information and a much wider range of informed opinion.
When I was carrying on about this a little while ago in the kitchen, where the tv was on and Wolf Blitzer was talking about something, Diane said, "You don’t get it. For you, tv is information. You’re thinking the wrong generation. For Blitzer and CNN, it’s entertainment. CNN isn’t news; it’s entertainment. Get it?"
I got it, and she’s right. This is war as entertainment, as titillation. It’s war as computer game, only it’s more passive because you don’t even get to fondle the joystick. Facts don’t matter except as things with which to fill space between commercials. One fact is exactly as good as another, one bit of videotape exactly as important as another. CNN is a medium in which there is no difference between noise and information. All that matters is that ever-changing eye-candy appears on the screen, voices you cannot ignore are heard, and you’re awake for the lawn product and pharmaceutical commercials.
I hate Wolf Blitzer’s voice not because of what he’s saying, but because everything he’s saying is exactly the same, everything has exactly the same value. All those things are not exactly the same and they do not have exactly the same value. Some are awful, some are unspeakably horrible, none is simple–and not one of the terrible facts in dispute will be resolved or even clarified by a vote of the well-meaning ignorant.
BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University of Buffalo. He edits Buffalo Report.
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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