Fascinating, Ms. Barbara.

Friday, December 25th, 1998

What kind of year was it? Well, don’t draw any conclusions from Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People of 1998 special. Anyone who puts a former Spice Girl and the egomaniacal director of Titanic on a ‘best of 98’ list is either desperate for bookings (what, you couldn’t get Leo?) or seriously out of touch with the vibe here at the near-end of this odd decade.

It might be me who’s out of touch—it wouldn’t be the first time—but I’m sure not hanging around people who are captivated with the latest round the world balloon attempt, or who desperately wanted one of those Furby creatures from hell for Christmas, or who will take Barbara’s word for who was really the most fascinating.

Mostly, I just shake my head. It seems as if that great big self-feeding all-consuming media machine that eats up public relations factoids and spews out hundreds of channels of news and news-like substances day in and day out is..well, just about exhausted. Or maybe just wheezing.
Here’s your darn story on the crush of holiday travel, they seem to say, flopping it up for our perusal on the fake mahogany news desk, offering us a tired old flounder that’s beginning to stink just a little.

Can you picture anyone at home saying “Honey, look! They’re saying the airport will be busy during the holidays. Who’d have thought? We better take precautions! Oh, they’re offering ‘more details!’ Bullet points! Get me a piece of notepaper!”

We got your insightful political analysis, served up as if fresh by Tim Russert: “Look—here’s James Carville and Mary Matalin—let me dust them off a bit—wonder what they’re going to say about all this?” Oh I don’t know, Tim, might it be anything new?

And you want heartwarming, we got heartwarming news. Our top story on Christmas day—Jews fill in for Christians on their jobs! We’ve got team coverage on this breaking heartwarmingness. In other news—it’s cold! People’s cars are stalling out, especially up north! And the cold is messing up—you guessed it—holiday travel!

Part of the sense of exhaustion comes from Repetitive Promo Fatigue (RPF), which it what happens when any human is battered with nonstop hype and tease. How many ways can they say “the latest on the mess in Washington, tonight at 11”? How many times can they slam “breaking news” in our face with a “Ka-thwummmm!” sound before we don’t instinctively jerk our heads toward the screen? “Something god-awful happened. We’ll tell you not now, but tonight at 11.”

But maybe the biggest part of it is that behind the promos is a fatigue in presentation. Darn near every television presenter seems to have that look of “boy, have I done this before.”

I keep waiting for the retro to kick in. One anchor in a loud sports jacket reads the headlines—all of them, national, international, state, and metro—off the AP wire into a huge silver microphone in front of a white-acoustic-tile background, with the sounds of long-dead teletypes clacking in the background—for a total of 15 minutes, that’s it. Big horn-rimmed glasses. Crew cut. It could be John or Monica, take your pick.

News, in black-and-white.