Monday, February 27, 2006

Bring Back the Puppet Heads

This morning, Howard Kurtz had an interesting squib (via TV Newser) on CNN’s Jack Cafferty, Wolf Blitzer’s curmudgeonly sidekick in The Situation Room, with a rundown of printed opinion that concludes that Cafferty is a sort of madman, “anti-Bill O’Reilly” from the populist Left. Cafferty himself counters that he is not kvetching from the Left or the Right, but rather that he is politically independent, striking out at whatever smells bad in the political landscape.

It has often struck me that Cafferty, both on The Situation Room and formerly on CNN’s American Morning, functions within a role that has a long history in network news. As the character who might just say anything, he’s a lot like Charlemane the Lion, the puppet that used to kibbitz with Walter Cronkite on the CBS Morning News during 1954-55. J. Fred Muggs, Dave Garroway’s chimp friend on the Today show during the same period, was of course a considerably less articulate fellow of the same genre.

Network news traded in its puppets (and its wild animals) for madmen long ago. As much as I am continually entertained by Cafferty, I wouldn’t mind so much if his voice came from a puppet head. Same goes for O’Reilly. If we’d only dress our TV madmen -- from whatever end of the political spectrum -- like puppets, then at least we’d know how seriously we were supposed to be taking them.

Cafferty, O'Reilly and their countless imitators can't seriously be classed as "news" or even "infotainment," and certainly not as genuinely analytical political discourse -- the appropriate name for it may be "opinotainment," a post-vaudevillian, post-Catskills form of stand-up comedy dressed up as opinion. And I, for one, would much prefer to see it delivered by a lion puppet.

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