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How Fox News Created a New Culture of Idiots

Cable news has created an entirely new breed of blowhards -- and the style has infected banking and even the arts.

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With the invention of twenty-four-hour TV news cycles, the wonders of technological change have created assholes specifically designed for TV. The cable news asshole is self-aggrandizing but not purely so; there is a slight pretext of service there. While few of them nowadays would pretend to be engaged in distinguished public service in the fourth estate, many will say they are really pleased to be giving people what they want.

People apparently want to listen to blowhards. Thus Chris Matthews has a popular show on MSNBC. The faux blowhard Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central blows harder, except that Matthews is not staging a ruse. He traffics in attention-grabbing — every day is D-day intensity, even when he is saying little of consequence, as though little or no reason to claim our attention were required. Another left-leaning bloviator, Keith Olbermann, at least offers moral outrage as grounds for our concern, even as he is a worse asshole for feeling entitled to set aside any sense of measure in making outrageous, indulgent moral criticisms.

When it comes to cable news assholes, however, we need not bother to attempt evenhandedness between left and right. The right-leaning version of being “fair and balanced” — that is, Fox News — is our gold standard. It pioneered the genre; it dominates in viewers, ratings, and profits; and it leads the way in innovation of the new asshole styles. We therefore pause to dwell on the case.

Neil Cavuto, a Fox News host, was actually called an asshole on the air. Here is an exchange from his show about fiscal stimulus and its relation to job creation with the mild-mannered AFL-CIO chief economist Ron Blackwell:

Ron Blackwell: Why don’t you let me finish my thought?

Neil Cavuto: You never answer a basic question.

Blackwell: I’m answering you right now.

Cavuto: Why will spending work?

Blackwell: These programs created jobs but not net creation. We lost more jobs because of the recession than were created by these programs.

Neil Cavuto: Wait a minute, Ron. You’re the chief economist there. Where did you get your degree? A baking school? Where are you cooking up these numbers?

Ron Blackwell: Oh that’s an insult. You’re a joker. You’re an asshole.

Blackwell apparently felt it was not sufficient to call Cavuto a “ joker.” Cavuto was not trying to be funny, nor is he dull or uninformed and pretending to be otherwise. Cavuto fully grasps the difference between job creation and net job creation, and he knew full well what point Blackwell was making. He therefore cannot be classified as a mere “ass,” with the suggestion of donkeylike stubbornness of mind combined with obliviousness to basic concepts or the social situation. Cavuto in fact staged a ploy: a dodge. He shifted attention away from the point made to the qualifications of the person making it in order to score dialectical points with the audience.

This is at the very least an asshole move. One often can permissibly shift attention in a conversation, but here it is at best unclearly justified. Interrupting Blackwell several times and then accusing him of not answering his question does not count as even half-cooperative discourse, not even by the low standards of American politics. Even that would not have been so bad if Cavuto had meant to initiate something like a meta- conversation between the two speakers, a conversation in which Blackwell could have later complimented the tactic of diversion with a “touché!” or “well played, sir.” Cavuto betrays no hint of metacooperation. He simply feels entitled not to wait his conversational turn. He does not have to actually listen to an opposing perspective, even from the person he is talking to. Cavuto could perhaps argue that the host must exert heavy control over the terms of debate, because polite terms will not do. Or maybe he feels justified in his bullying as long as he is scoring points in a kind of televised game show, with influence, profit, and fun as his justly deserved reward. Either rationale could constitute a sense of entitlement — something like the right to rule, or at least to shut the opposition out, while taking the moral high ground.

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