Conditioned to the new deformities of the news cycle—the jolts of
rolling scandal, the ambiance of grave disgrace—television adapted its
approach to the State of the Union. Normally, the occasion, with its
sense of circumstance, is a good fit for brassy graphic flourishes
and proud verbal gestures that celebrate democratic tradition. They
adorn the usual analysis and power-game play-by-play. And now, instead,
all day, the tube has been flowing with survival-skill skepticism and
Yesterday, an afternoon of news-desk preamble found pundits steeling
themselves for the constitutionally mandated speech act of a proven
liar, and their manic energy sent me fleeing, at 8 P.M., to C-SPAN’s
“State of the Union Address Preview.” A former sergeant-at-arms of the
House chatted about ceremonial procedures as a camera watched the
gallery fill without comment. Another camera clinically surveyed the
nest of television equipment in the National Statuary Hall, waiting to
transmit spin. C-SPAN looked, as it often does, like a vantage affording
a healthy perspective.
On CNN, at the same hour, it was reported that the First Lady had
travelled to the Capitol Building separately from the President. It was
added that the couple hadn’t been seen together publicly since New
Year’s Eve, at Mar-a-Lago. It was striking, I sighed, to hear such a
statement, with its phrasing reminiscent of an E! News brief on the
dating life of Justin Bieber, in this context, as a correct subtheme of
national discourse. It was enough to make C-SPAN look even more like an
escapist oasis, with a healthy disregard for the full absurdity of the
new American moment. All Trump news is, to a degree, tabloid news,
whether the viewer approves or not.
The cable-news networks qualified word of the First Lady’s limo
arrangements with the notice that she would host in her box a collection
of citizens whose biographies suited the President’s political goals.
This was, of course, a traditional piece of stagecraft, but Trump
introduced the guests to the gallery at a nontraditional rhythm, as if
the speech were organized to magnify opportunities for standing
ovations. There was a ringmaster’s kind of rhetorical tactic to this:
President Trump tailored the State of the Union address as a rally and fed, as always, on adulation.
The speech seeped into the living room, and it subsided. When it was
done, the anchors and panelists returned, and all of them faced a new
challenge. An audience is accustomed to feeling tired after a
Washington, D.C., broadcast spectacle, fatigued by politics as usual,
but now the exhaustion has the air of a defensive torpor.
This morning, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski picked up where they had left off the day before. On Tuesday, Joe had concluded that Trump’s first State of the Union address would be of no consequence. Any statements that Trump made toward seeming something other than a blight were sure to be blotted out by the evidence of his incoming tweets. On Wednesday’s telecast, with no post-address tweets yet emitted, a tacit tension hung over the panel. The tone was set for a long cable-news day, in an era where each day feels longer than the one before.
This morning’s broadcasts hustled to manage the disparate developments
in the entwined story of Trump’s relationships with former personnel of
the F.B.I. and the K.G.B. An anchor would ask a White House
correspondent to capture some fragment of the bombshell story, and the
correspondent would cordially insist on talking first about the State of
the Union address. The jostle of the moment reflected an earnest
confusion about priorities. Where to point the camera in this chaos?