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Press Review September 4, 2003
Poisoned By CNN
By John Dolan Browse author Email

The visa law finally forced me out of Moscow to Tallin, where I spent three rainy days in a hotel room flicking between CNN and the Discovery Channel, developing a severe allergy to both.

All I wanted was to soak up some English-language TV news and watch some animal shows. Katherine, my wife, and I had been watching the news in Russian every night for eleven months. It was good for our oral comprehension, I guess, but it was hard work. For most of the first day I lay on that hotel bed soaking up CNN's American voices like a big bald sponge.

Then something started getting to me. The voices, the faces, the noise. After so many months of not quite getting what people said to me, never quite knowing what the newscaster's saying, the shock of understanding not just every word but every nuance. which had been bliss on the first day, became tedious, then unbearable. In your own language you hear too much. It's like an unwanted gift of telepathy: every lie, sneer and bluff is audible, like it or not. That's why most of the telepaths in SF stories end up committing suicide or begging for a lobotomy.

America, absorbed one item at a time via the Moscow Times's "In Brief" section, is endurable. America mainlined via three days of non-stop CNN is not. You hear too much, too well. I'm talking about inflections, laughs, pauses. I ended up shrieking at every flat or sharp in their voices.

And the faces. That's the visual aspect of the telepathy curse: you know those faces in your goddamn blood. The one I remember most vividly belonged to a CNN anchor named Jim Clancy: bluff, booming face and voice, a loud chuckle. Irish-American of an old sort, a bad sort: cops and cop-groupies. They're born sidekicks. Clancy had the Irish sidekick's hint of grovel in his chuckle. Ed McMahon's grovel-chuckle with a twist: McMahon's job was to laugh at unfunny jokes, while Clancy's is to say terrible things with a straight face.

He was paired up with some British Condoleeza, a frontwoman of color. Everybody's got one now, but CNN has a whole stable. It's always some white American guy next to some Commonwealth collabo of colo(u)r. Most of the females were Indian Brits, twitchy, refined, all fending elbows and assumed accent.

The American men were always more relaxed, joshing with the Head-Girl types. It was a very stable picture: the American white guy runs things but goes out of his way to include the junior partner: junior as a woman, a Brit and...dark.

It was the week that Blair's press secretary resigned and a horrendous truck-bomb killed America's favorite Iraqi Shiite cleric. CNN hugged the Blair story close and kept the Iraqi bomb far off. Specialists, white male British academics far too ugly for everyday TV, were allowed on to do color commentary on the big fumble Blair's team had made. The nuances were enthusiastic, unworried, enjoying it.

Iraq was different. The Americans dealt with that one, since it was pretty clearly their team involved in the...fumble? No, not really. There didn't seem to be any perceptible decrease in the swarms of Shiites swirling around the blasted mosque. The word I remember is "remnants," which was repeated with special emphasis. It was "remnants" who did this, "diehard" elements.

And nobody was to blame for Najaf. That was clear in the voices' melody.

Blair's man was another matter; he had fumbled, and they were all over it like cricket commentators waking to critique a knocked wicket. "Oh yes, Campbell won't be happy with that one, mmm?!" Najaf, the crisp and dull music of the voices implied, had happened, yes; now let's move on.

I hardly remember any words except the one or two, like "remnant," which summed up the music of CNN. It's a matter of song titles; the words, like those in all contemporary US political rhetoric, are intentionally diffuse, inarticulate. CNN is "Alexander's Feast" without rhyme -- because rhyme is a mnenomic, and this is a wordless, aphasic music.

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