Won’t someone save cable news? It’s not just that ratings are down across the board for the Big Three 24-hour networks – although 2013 was unquestionably a bad year for everyone. Far more damaging, I think, is the fact that cable news as an aesthetic – as a compelling method for exploring the important topics of our modern era – has entered what feels like a late-decadent period. The typical news anchor on CNN or MSNBC or Fox News floats across a set built out of touchscreen walls and occasional chat-friendly desks: It’s like all of cable news takes place in a universe where everyone is Tom Cruise in Minority Report and everywhere is a college café. Information has been reduced to talking points, and talking points reduced to hashtags, and hashtags are announced with such reverence that you actually think the newscaster is in the room with you, right now, yelling a hashtag into your face.
Surely someone can break us out of this cycle of inanity! Surely there is still some blood left in the cable news stone! We tried a Baldwin, and that didn’t work. We tried a British person, same result. The huddled masses cry out for a hero, for someone smart enough to recognize the intrinsic power of the form, but also savvy enough to shake off the cobwebs.
Ronan Farrow, alas, is not that hero. At least not yet. The host of Ronan Farrow Daily has already built up an impressive multihyphenate résumé – activist, tweeter, boy genius, lawyer, Rhodes Scholar, Go-To Young Person, Possible Sinatra – and his first performance as host suggested a breezy charisma. But Farrow is also young – and looks younger, and sounds even younger – and so the debut of Ronan Farrow Daily was also an awkward mix of tones. You were constantly told that you were getting the real news behind the news: Farrow introduced a series called “The World Unseen,” which takes “a closer look at the people affected by and creating the news.” (Thank goodness: Don’t you hate it when news shows specifically focus on the people who don’t create the news?)
But Farrow is not really a hard-hitting journalist; he seemed much more comfortable throwing out “funny” asides. Introducing Yulia Tymoshenko, the just-released Ukrainian politician, Farrow quickly listed her résumé, then addended: “…and also has amazing hair.” Later on, Farrow brought former RNC chair Michael Steele and fellow MSNBC super-friend Alex Wagner onto his show…so they could talk about a Kansas bill to legislate spanking. Never mind that the bill died four days ago and is, taken altogether, probably not even on the list of the 1,000 most important things that happened in the news last week: It was funny, sort of! And it allowed Farrow to ask Wagner if she was spanked when she was a child. When Wagner dodged the question into vaguely important topics, Farrow jokingly commended her on “refocusing on the real issues and avoiding the spanking questions!”
Farrow thinks he’s hilarious. And that’s part of the problem. He started the show by explaining, “I grew up watching the greats of TV news…Murrow, Cronkite, Colbert.” This is almost funny for a number of reasons – Farrow was born two decades after Murrow’s death and years after Cronkite’s retirement – but it also speaks to the fact that even a supersmart young newsman like Farrow doesn’t really have any actual-news newscasters to look up to. The visual language of Ronan Farrow Daily is much more in line with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. There was one video package about the persistence of illegal marijuana sales in post-legalized states that basically felt exactly like a Daily Show segment, except without the humor or the intelligence. Text constantly flew onscreen: “LEGAL MARIJUANA, COMING SOON TO A STATE NEAR YOU.” Or this chestnut:
The problem, of course, is that Colbert and Stewart didn’t become famous defining personalities because they make fun of politics: Their primary subject has always been the media, and how the postmodern news media reduces important topics to meaningless buzzwords while transforming meaningless topics into important zero-sum scorched-earth mega-topics. Like, say, how a typical cable news show might have a segment called “Heroes & Zeroes,” which reduces the day’s events to a Winner and a Loser. Or how some other typical cable news show might have a segment called “Battle of the Day,” which asks viewers to consider a complicated topic by voting in an inane binary “This or That” style on Twitter.
Guess what? Both of those segments are on Ronan Farrow Daily! The problem with imitating the form of satire is that you wind up looking like the apocalyptic deconstruction of whatever you’re trying to be. At one point during the spanking talk, a chyron flashed onscreen: “BILL WOULD ALLOW SPANKING CHILD TO POINT OF BRUISING.” It felt like you were watching a newscast from an old Paul Verhoeven movie, brought to horrifying life.
Look, I’m being cruel to be kind. Farrow makes an appealing onscreen presence. He’s clearly an intelligent guy. The whole show is very clearly being pitched at the college demographic. On the first episode, that manifested itself mostly in youthbait: Weed, Twitter, Girls. Lena Dunham was the “Hero” of the day for her handling of the whole Jezebel/Vogue photoshop imbroglio – an event that happened almost a month ago, although Dunham just referenced it last week. (A possible subtitle for Ronan Farrow Daily: “Aggregating Last Week’s News…With Attitude!”)
The one interesting part of the whole show focused on student loans, with Farrow asking viewers to participate by sending in a photo of themselves with the amount of money they owe. This is one of those rare lame viral-ready social media stunts that actually has some promise. Even if you know Ronan Farrow’s background – and you know that, whatever else he has to deal with, he’s not worrying about student loans – this felt like a demonstration of the youth-demographic perspective that the 26-year-old could bring to the musty cable-news necropolis. He could take the form in interesting places.
Right now, though, this feels dangerously like a vanity project: Baby’s First Talk Show. When he talked about Dunham, Farrow concluded that she is “comfortable with her own body, but also grateful for a little airbrushing. And aren’t we all?” Ronan Farrow Daily is all airbrushing, no body. Or, to sum up this whole review on the show’s own terms: #Zero