The Magazine

Sex, Lies, Videotape, and CNN

William Butler Yeats predicts Paula Zahn.

Jan 21, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 18 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS believed in ESP, so I'd like to think he may have caught a mystical glimpse of future CNN newsbabe Paula Zahn in his tea leaves when he wrote these wise and cynical words in 1933: "Only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair."

There was a big dust-up last week when CNN briefly aired an advertisement for Zahn's new morning show that described her as "provocative, super-smart, oh yeah, and just a little sexy." The ad lied, because Paula Zahn is not just a little sexy. Paula Zahn is a lot sexy. And anybody who actually believes that Paula Zahn's looks are incidental to the success she's had in her career should be hospitalized immediately.

Only God, my dear, could love Paula Zahn for her provocative super-smarts alone and not her yellow hair.

CNN pulled the ad, claiming no one in senior management had approved it. Network head Walter Isaacson proclaimed himself embarrassed. Not because the ad was wrong about Zahn's sexiness, but because it was in such poor taste.

It was in poor taste. It was in poor taste to dub the intensely amiable Zahn "provocative," because she's about as provocative as Velveeta. And it's in poor taste--in super-poor taste, actually--to use the term "super-smart" about anybody, because horrific neologisms are the very definition of bad taste.

But neither the use of the word "provocative" nor the use of the execrable "super-smart" is what kicked up all the ruckus. No, it was the use of the word "sexy." You can almost hear Walter Isaacson chewing out the CNN promotions department: "Hey, this is 2002, people! We don't describe beautiful women on television as sexy!"

Wait. That can't be it. After all, CNN is part of AOL Time Warner, which produces many hours of prime-time television featuring many sexy women.

The problem was that Paula Zahn works for a news channel, and news channels are serious. Serious issues are being discussed, like Afghanistan. CNN has a fellow named Bill Hemmer hosting its show "Live from Afghanistan." I can't really judge Bill Hemmer's sexiness, but it seems to me that Bill Hemmer is kind of a male version of Paula Zahn. Before CNN, he won a local Emmy for a program in which he interviewed Mother Teresa and then went bungee-jumping in New Zealand.

Also in Afghanistan, late last year, was Ashleigh Banfield, a young blonde woman with very chic glasses. Did I say blonde? When MSNBC decided to send her into the belly of the mid-Asian beast, Banfield had her hair darkened--presumably so that people would take her more seriously. Perhaps Miss Banfield had read Yeats's second verse, in which the woman figures she has a solution to being appreciated for her body and not her mind: "But I can get a hair-dye, and set such color there--brown, or black, or carrot." Yet still, as Yeats predicted, she was loved by viewers for her hair.

Television news is like Anne Gregory, the original subject of Yeats's poem. Television news wants to be loved for itself. It wants to win Peabodys, to be invited to join the Council on Foreign Relations. It wants respect. And for a few brief shining moments this fall, television news was elevated in importance just as the entire nation seemed elevated by its response to September 11.

But it's still mostly flash and dazzle, emanations from a cathode-ray tube, intended to fit on a two foot by two foot screen in your living room. Sexy people--beautiful women, handsome men, and supremely self-confident folk of both sexes--dominate in news as they do in entertainment because they're pleasing company and easy on the eyes.

Television news is more television than news. This is a fact of pop-culture life that becomes annoying only when television pretends otherwise.

Yeats once wrote of a country in which "an aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick." In television country, not just an aged man, but every personality that's not "a little bit sexy," is a paltry thing.

And that's the way it is.

John Podhoretz is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and columnist for the New York Post.