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Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Thursday, 9 April 2009 11:47 UK

Washington diary: Crying on cable

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

When John F Kennedy's life was brutally cut short by an assassin's bullet, Walter Cronkite told America the news.

The Fox News logo and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann
Cable news channels like Fox and MSNBC are competing for ratings

He took off his black-rimmed glasses and cleared his throat as if to dislodge a piece of unwarranted emotion, paused for a few seconds and then continued with the business of delivering the terrible information.

The real, if restrained, grief of that fleeting moment was - and still is - eerily powerful.

When Barack Obama announced another tranche of his bailout package for ailing banks, Glenn Beck on Fox News burst into floods of tears, as if his own mother had just passed away. His torrent for the Tarp as the Troubled Assets Relief Programme is known left me sadly cold.

The traditional stiff upper lip of newscasters has morphed into a quivering lower lip.

It is not just Glenn Beck. On the other end of the political spectrum, MSNBC's Ed Schultz kicked off his new show with a 10-minute - or was it 15? - diatribe that delivered a frightening crescendo of rage, as if the producer was yelling into his earpiece, telling him to crank it up a notch.

The rant was so lengthy, I went off to make a cup of tea, came back to my desk and he was still at it.

By the end of it I felt so physically exhausted I had not taken in a single coherent sentence of what he had to say. I think he was angry at the people who were angry with the President...

New battleground

Mr Schultz and Mr Beck are only the latest and shrillest exponents of a growing genre on cable TV.

The terrestrial networks are still relatively buttoned-up and much of radio has been ranting for years, of course. The new battleground for emotional journalism is on cable.

Keith Olbermann started by throwing papers at the camera and progressed to hurling insults at the Bush administration. Jim Cramer has made a TV career out of being nuts on a business channel, supposedly offering sound investment advice. If my banker behaved as if he had rabies, I would call the doctor and switch banks. But I am clearly barking, as it were, up the wrong tree here.

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
I wish I had that many viewers. I am just not willing - or able - to froth at the mouth to get them

Fox News prides itself on its "fair and balanced" coverage and its No Spin Zone, and thankfully most of its anchors remain dry-eyed (most of the time). I caught one of the channel's morning shows this week. No-one was sobbing on set.

But like prospectors looking for fresh wells of crude oil, they tried to unearth a new seam of outrage.

This one involved linking the fact that Barack Obama had often used his middle name Hussein while in Turkey with the cover of Newsweek which declared "the Decline and Fall of Christian America". "And this in the run-up to Easter", the anchor gasped, asking if it was an attempt to do down the Christian faith.

She stopped short of accusing the 44th President of plotting the slaughter of the Easter Bunny and being a closet Muslim. But we were not far off.

Since old-fashioned journalism is now so, well, old-fashioned - Mr Schultz and Mr Beck started their careers as shock jocks and comedians - it is no wonder that more and more Americans are turning to a genuine comedian for genuine news.

By comparison to some of his colleagues on the news channels, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart can have as much gravitas as Vatican Radio.

Insinuation is now information. Rage is de rigeur. Emotion is cool.

If the anchor's cheeks don't glisten with tears, then at least the screen shimmers with seizure-inducing graphics.

Nation of believers

Partly, this is about ratings. We are all chasing the diminishing slices of a shrinking pie. Anything to grab an audience that is suffering both from attention deficit disorder and an embarrassment of choices on the web, on TV, on radio by the scruff of the neck and force them to watch.

Soon we will be getting robocalls from Glenn and Ed, asking: "You watching this? I REALLY hope you are. Because if you're NOT, I will be mad as hell!"

The emotional guff clearly works. The ratings are great. Glenn Beck harvests over two million viewers at five in the afternoon, which tends to be nap time for cable TV.

Ed Schultz
Ed Schultz was a radio host before moving to MSNBC

I wish I had that many viewers. I am just not willing - or able - to froth at the mouth to get them.

The rise of cable is also about the current state of America.

I have always loved that this country is more aspirational, optimistic and polite than Europe.

This remains a nation of believers - in the broadest sense - compared to our continent of cynics.

The collapse of the economy, the outrage of unwarranted bonuses, Ponzi schemes and designer trash-cans have brought the pitchforks out of the cellar. We are finally getting a genuine bonfire of vanities.

And yet I am surprised how generally calm and collected the American public has behaved, despite the best efforts of some of my colleagues to tease out their fury.

Perhaps it is because they have just had an opportunity to express their feelings where it matters: at the ballot box.

Perhaps it is because they still believe that judicious government can fix things.

Or maybe it is because all the ranting and raging is being done on their behalf. On air.

Mr Beck and Mr Schultz are therapeutic. They exorcise our demons.

When my children see another child crying, bawling and whining in public, they immediately stop their antics. They look on in silent awe.

We do the same.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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