Last week, sitting in an airport waiting for a delayed flight, I spent some time watching the Official News Network of America’s Airports, CNN.
Somehow, CNN suits the blandly joyless surroundings of a contemporary airport. Dotting the concourse, tucked into the Wolfgang Puck Express and the Starbucks and the generic Mexican restaurant with the word “Cantina” in its name, the continuing national crisis unfolds on the screen as people go about their airport business: yelling at their kids, barking into their cellphones, flipping through Men’s Health, and furtively tucking into a Cinnabon while praying they won’t run into anyone they know. CNN has replaced Muzak as the noise in the background.
Depending on your point of view, it was either the best time or the worst time to be stuck watching cable news. The Casey Anthony trial had just concluded in Orlando with a “not guilty” verdict, and the airwaves were crackling with outraged experts and dumbfounded journalists. Casey Anthony, they all expected, would be convicted of murdering her toddler daughter. All the signs pointed that way.
But as the experts on the Official News Network of America’s Airports tried to sort it all out, the people around me in the Cinnabon — yes, you read that right; go ahead and judge if you’re so blameless — had very definite opinions about the trial, its outcome, and especially the jury.
“The juries are all idiots,” a man said to no one in particular — you don’t make eye contact when you’re eating a Cinnabon — “idiots from Florida.”
Later, charging my cellphone and squatting awkwardly on the floor of the concourse, which is where they keep the electric outlets, I ended up in a conversation with another Casey Anthony Expert, who told me that the jury did what they had to do. “Don’t blame them,” he said to me, despite the fact that I hadn’t blamed them, hadn’t even brought it up, had tried, in fact, not to engage in conversation at all. “They just did their job. The prosecution messed it up.”
Because not many lawyers wear black cargo shorts, or sport those awful earlobe-stretching o-rings, I assumed that my outlet buddy’s legal expertise was more of the amateur variety. Nevertheless, when I got to my destination a few hours later, and the subject of the Casey Anthony trial came up, I found myself repeating a version of his insights. “How can you blame the jury?” I said to my dinner companions. “This is just a case of a prosecutor who didn’t have a case.”
They all nodded sagely. One of my dinner companions piped up. “What I heard,” he said, “was that the jury wanted to convict, but simply couldn’t.”
And we all nodded sagely again.
“What I heard.” “Here’s what I’m hearing.” These are cable-news phrases, the kinds of things in-the-know folks — or, more accurately, folks who want to seem in-the-know — employ when they’re vamping, trying to fill cable-network news time, mindful that the entire shaky business model of the cable-news industry rests on the assumption that there’s something to know, something to hear, something to state and restate in slightly different ways, before and after the life-insurance commercial.
That’s their excuse. They’re in the know-it-all business. What’s ours? The guy in the Cinnabon, the o-ringed dude on the airport floor, me at a dinner party — what turned us, all of a sudden, into experts? And since when do I pass along the threadbare insights of a guy I’ve never met or set eyes on before without thinking, Why do I have to have something to say about something that happened in Orlando?
Back when the airport background music was actual music, and not experts on television trying to sound alarmed, you had to be sitting at an actual bar with a working television to have the kind of pointless know-it-all conversations we have now all the time, and even then it was mostly about sports. That guy can’t hit, we’d say. They ought to fire that coach, we’d agree. And some aimless debate would erupt until someone down at the end of the bar would mutter something about how none of you guys could field a Wiffle ball so why don’t you shut up, and we’d shut up because that’s what you used to do before you could sit quietly at a bar and watch the game and live-tweet your tiny thoughts to people in another bar, somewhere else.
But now, we’re all busily working at the Network of Me: We’ve got Facebook statuses to update, Twitters to tweet, notions to blog, and videos to vlog — we’re all so busy sharing and passing along tidbits that we’re never really sure if we’re passing along something we’ve “heard” along the way from a forgotten source, or if we’ve actually stumbled into a unique insight.
If unique insights even exist anymore. One million monkeys and one million typewriters will, eventually, churn out Hamlet. What about one million Tweeters and one million smartphones? Or one cable-news outfit with one million (I’m being generous here to CNN) viewers? We feel the need to comment and remark on passing events as if real life were a sports contest and we were those guys in suits with the enormous headphones, chattering away.
That’s what it’s called on the Web, on Facebook, on blogs and news sites: commenting. “Care to comment?” it says at the bottom of the news article. “Please log in to comment,” certain websites demand. On Facebook, people can comment on your status, which doesn’t even make English-language sense, when you really parse the phrase, but still: The chief activity of the largest human network ever devised is people commenting on what other people have commented on.
Not too long ago, a reality-television show had a call-in poll. The specific question escapes me, but it was essentially a referendum on the ouster of a certain contestant. Viewers were asked to send a text message to one number to answer “Yes,” another number to answer “No,” and a third number to say “Don’t have an opinion.” Each text message cost around $1.50, which meant that some people paid actual dollars American to broadcast to the world that they had no opinion.
Which, in a way, is an improvement.