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Lards of the Ring

Tonight on TeeVee: Incisive commentary. Biting wit. In-depth, cogent analysis of the stories you need to hear, of the facts you need to know. The kind of hard-hitting, indispensable information you just can't get anywhere else.

But first: a guy with a feather boa in wrestling tights.

I mean, why not? This is a Web site about television, after all. And television, in its wisdom, has decided that out of health-care reform, possible Chinese espionage and a nascent presidential campaign, the most important issue facing the citizenry is... next month's big wrestling pay-per-view in Minneapolis.

In case you missed it -- and considering the cable news channels involved, it's a pretty safe bet you did -- MSNBC and the Fox News Channel cut away from their regularly scheduled programming of... um... guys talking about the news... to carry live a press conference announcing that Jesse Ventura will return to the wrestling ring as a special guest referee. The duly elected governor of Minnesota is returning to his one-time employer, the World Wrestling Federation, as part of the big Summer Slam rassling extravaganza. Which just proves the old saying: You can take the boy out of the reverse double-chinlock, but you just can't take the reverse double-chinlock out of the boy.

Or words to that effect.

I'm not here to rant and rail about whether it's proper for a sitting governor to get in the ring with the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Undertaker. In terms of upholding the dignity of elected office, this probably falls somewhere between carpet-bagging your way into a New York Senate race and rogering a zaftig intern over in the broom closet. The problem here is with the media, which has taken the once honorable task of reporting the news and turned it into a celebrity-driven tongue bath.

Is it news that Jesse Ventura is going from the state house back to the wrestling ring? Probably. But is it big enough news to merit live coverage of the press conference, especially on a day when Israel's new prime minister was visiting the U.S. and a suspected serial killer turned himself into the Feds? Not at all. Unless, of course, Ventura hit Ehud Barak over the head with a steel chair.

Yet, there were MSNBC and Fox, going to the Ventura press conference live, as if the Paris Peace Accords were about to be unveiled. Fox even used the video feed provided by the WWF, turning what's supposed to be a respectable news organization into an organ-grinding shill for the next Wrestlemania.

Still, the award for most jaw-droppingly awful news judgment goes to MSNBC -- a pretty impressive feat when you're going up against Fox News and its special brand of pompous gasbaggery. At the time of the Ventura press conference, the bastard offspring of NBC and Microsoft was interviewing John McCain, the Arizona Senator who wants to be your next president.

Apparently tired of chatting with a man who harbors ambitions of becoming the most powerful man in the world in the next 18 months, MSNBC cut away from the interview to cover every news-making second of the Ventura-WWF confab. And then, when Ventura was done promising to give assorted wrestlers a well-deserved gubernatorial ass-kicking, MSNBC went back to McCain... and promptly asked him to talk about this whole Ventura business.

Look at it from the perspective of poor, dumb John McCain. You've served your country for years -- as a soldier, as a POW in Vietnam, as a U.S. Senator for many, many years. And now you're running for president. You aren't going to win -- that realization probably sunk in long ago. But dammit, at least you'll get a forum to air your thoughts on the issues that matter to you. At last, you have that forum, a national TV audience -- even if it is made up of the shut-ins and derelicts who make up MSNBC's core demo. And before you even get a chance to spit your message out, Laura Ingraham is saying, "Well, Senator, that's a very salient point about campaign finance reform, and I'm sure we can discuss it later. But tell me... do you think Gov. Ventura is the right man to referee next month's Texas Death Match for the WWF title belt?"

What could possibly be going through your mind at that particular moment? That, compared to this Laura Ingraham broad, maybe those VC weren't such bad cats after all?

You'll notice that CNN didn't drop everything it was doing to bring its viewers the latest news about Minnesota's governor and his muscular, sweaty cohorts. But before you start hoisting a glass to toast Wolf Blitzer and company, consider that CNN head honcho Ted Turner owns a rival wrestling operation. And you can bet dollars to donuts that if the wrestling boot was on the other foot and it was Turner's World Championship Wrestling that had nabbed Ventura, Larry King would have been there at the press conference, complimenting the governor for his choice in boas.

It's almost a cliché at this point to say that TV news is a cacophony of sound bites and blather, a prepackaged array of headlines mouthed by Ken-doll anchors who need help from their interns sounding out the big words. Yes, TV news is bad. And water is wet, puppies are cute and the Red Sox will fade every autumn. We know this. We accept it.

But should we? After all, we're living in an era of instant information, of immediate access. By my count, there are five channels on my cable service devoted entirely to reporting news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Throw in newscasts from the three major networks, local stations and various cable outlets and you have a variety of news product unavailable just a decade ago.

So shouldn't some of it somewhere be actually, you know, good?

Instead, it's all the same. The same anchors intoning the same vague platitudes about the same stilted headlines. The same professional pundits running off at the mouth about everything from the stock market to Kosovo to the big sale at Macy's. And most of all, the same feeble newscasts apparently targeted at an audience with the cognitive powers of stewed cabbage. We're a society with an ever-expanding arsenal of ways to say something that every day has less and less worth saying.

It's almost enough to make you want to smash a steel chair over Laura Ingraham's head.


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