The Magazine

Sound Off

Joseph Epstein lowers the volume.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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I was up three mornings in a row last week and at my post--a comfortable chair next to a lamp table upon which my coffee sat--watching the semifinal and final matches at Wimbledon. Tennis is the sport I played best as a boy and, when played well, the sport I enjoy watching above all others. Nothing unusual about a tennis fan watching high-level tennis played at the grandest of all the grand slam tournaments--except, perhaps, that I watched all three mornings with the sound turned up only high enough so that I could hear the dim pock of tennis balls but not high enough to hear the voices of the various expert commentators, John McEnroe, Mary Carillo, and company.

I once read that one of the signs of encroaching madness is watching television with the sound off. My own sense is that just the reverse is true: The way to madness lies in watching television with the sound on. So irrelevant, so repetitive, so low grade is sports chat that I have, in fact, taken to watching all sports events with the sound off. Baseball, college and pro basketball and football, all are immensely improved bereft of the clichés and cheap sentiments of their highly paid announcers. I don't watch hockey or NASCAR racing--if I did, I shouldn't find time to write even this brief casual--but I feel confident that they, too, would be much improved by silence.

Many an evening I feel I can also watch the news with the sound off, so predictable does it all seem. After all, most of the people paid to deliver the news--so-called "on-camera personnel"--aren't there for their wit or powers of formulation but chiefly for their hairdos and wardrobe and calming effect. Their less than penetrating words only obscure a clear view of their neckties, outer coats, coifs, and delicately applied makeup.

Most of the time one knows what these people--"speakerines," the French call them, denoting that for the most part they are devices through whom words written by scruffier characters than they are conveyed--are going to say anyhow. Conventional wisdom, received opinions, false sentiment, dollops of happy talk, such make up their gist. Does one really require sound to pick up the absent nuances of a Keith Olbermann or a Glenn Beck, a Rachel Maddow or a Pat Buchanan? One has only to glimpse the self-satisfaction playing upon their faces to realize that what they know we have no need to hear.

Ezra Pound famously called literature news that stays news. As for the news itself, nothing is more permeable. News, to wring a change on Ol' Ez, is precisely that which doesn't stay news. Much of it requires no comment whatsoever. After a president is in office for more than four months, we know everything he is likely to say. As for presidential press secretaries, their message never changes: The president is, was, and always will be correct, so please don't bother me with contradictions, misquotations, or simple logic. New messages from al Qaeda all come down to the same: You've had the course, Morris. Cures for diseases and announcements of new wonder drugs are generally soon revoked. The weather of course changes, but it can be shown on a crawl.

Things were better in the old days, or so people of a certain age in the business like to think. One wonders. Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, John Cameron Swayze, and the rest of the major older television figures, were they the real thing or merely a set of empty trench coats? Television news-reading and commentating is not a field notable for attracting geniuses. I make an exception for David Brinkley, who was no genius either, but at least, toward the end of his career, specialized in a cynicism about politics and the politicians of all parties that was bracing.

No exception need be made for Walter Cronkite. During his 19 years (1962-81) as the anchor for CBS television news, Cronkite was considered "the most trusted man in America." Turns out he could chiefly be trusted never to say anything unpredictable. Whatever the going story--the walk on the moon, the death of John F. Kennedy, the 1968 Democratic convention riots--he piled on with platitudes. The tag line with which he used to end his show was, "And that's the way it is." The problem is that his version wasn't the way it was at all. He didn't have a clue to the way it really was.

The old joke about Wagner's music is that it isn't as bad as it sounds. The non-joke about television commentary--news, sports, and the rest--is that it is precisely as bad as it sounds. The volume button--there, on the lower left--please, turn it all the way down. Thank you.