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Funbag

What’s The Point Of Wolf Blitzer?

on November 22, 2016 in New York City.
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Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. Drew’s on vacation. Today, we’re talking about the Olympics, Peak TV, Andrew Cuomo, and more.

Hi, friends. I’m Alex Pareene. I write for The New Republic and other places. I originally was going to promote something new here but it’s not ready yet so I will just promote The Politics of Everything, the podcast I host with Laura Marsh, the literary editor of The New Republic. Check out recent episodes about how dentistry is fake and what Havana Syndrome is (also fake).

On to your questions!

Greg:

What does the long reign of Wolf Blitzer at CNN (supposedly at $5 million a year!) say about the state of political news? It obviously says CNN doesn’t care about journalism OR maximizing profits. You don’t beat Fox in the ratings leading with ol’ Wolf, and you aren’t breaking any hot stories with him either. So what does it mean that has been around for a decade longer than Walter Cronkite despite far worse ratings and maybe 1% of the journalistic impact?

You can’t find the video anymore (as far as I can tell) but in 2009, Wolf Blitzer famously lost on Celebrity Jeopardy! really badly. Embarrassingly badly. Before Final Jeopardy he was $4,600 in the red. Andy Richter (a very skilled Celebrity Jeopardy! player, to be fair) demolished him.

Not only did Wolf lose badly on national television, he did badly in rehearsal, too, which was documented in a behind-the-scenes video aired on The Tonight Show during the brief period when Conan O’Brien was hosting it and Richter returned as his announcer. This clip disappeared into the NBC vaults about 10 seconds after Leno took the show back. (If you have it somehow, please send it to me, it was very funny.) And this behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage was even funnier than Blitzer losing on the real show, because he showed no sign of embarrassment in the face of actual, quantitative proof of his ignorance (being good at Jeopardy doesn’t mean you’re smart, obviously, but it’s a barometer of general knowledge). He was rude and pretentious even as a professional comedian and sidekick schooled him in a contest of “knowing things about the world.”

This has stuck with me for a long time, as you can tell. Wolf Blitzer being so bad at Jeopardy seems crucial to his whole deal. Wolf Blitzer is not a smart or thoughtful person, he’s incurious, and when called on to speak extemporaneously (which live cable news anchors often are) he’s incapable of doing anything but spouting meaningless, cliche-ridden verbal filler. But he seems authoritative and serious. He’s got the bearing of a serious person. There is no frivolity in Wolf.

With the Jeopardy hosting gig in the news I’ve been thinking about what made Alex Trebek such a good host. A big part was that he, too, seemed authoritative and serious. I always thought he could be weirdly curt with certain contestants, and his habit of carefully over-emphasizing his pronunciation of non-English words seemed like an affectation–but of course it was: Trebek was performing. (And he was fluent in French, and they re-taped all his mispronunciations.) He was playing the Guy Who Knows All The Answers On Jeopardy, unlike the hapless contestants. (By all accounts I’ve read he was not like that when not taping the show. I guess I could ask Barry.) It was fun to see Trebek act a bit superior to the freaks, nerds, and occasional Regular People who competed on Jeopardy.

So, back to Blitzer. The same television rules apply, because cable news isn’t “news” the same way the Associated Press is; it’s televised entertainment. It’s not important for Wolf Blitzer to know anything about what he’s talking about, it’s just important for him to sound authoritative, and because you sort of accrue authoritativeness the longer you’re on TV, being on TV for a long time becomes an argument for continuing to be on TV.

But you are also correct that while this is Wolf’s Function, that function is not exactly as lucrative, ratings-wise, as being Tucker Carlson or even Rachel Maddow. CNN’s top-rated guy is Jake Tapper, I think, who would probably do better on Jeopardy! (but who has yet to prove it, the coward). To some extent Wolf keeps his job because TV news is a conspiracy to inflate the perceived value of eminently replaceable men exactly like him. A lot of American society sort of operates according to this principle: Everyone young and poor and entry-level is a replaceable cog, each television anchor and CEO and U.S. Senator is the irreplaceable key to the success of the entire institution. No one was supposed to know that Matt Lauer could just go away one day and life would move on and The Today Show could keep going without him. Wolf Blitzer is Stephen Breyer, is what I’m saying.

To sum up, all rich old guys are in a conspiracy together to keep their jobs by pretending they’re essential.

Danielle:

What would be a dog’s favourite Olympic event? Perhaps javelin, it’s like competitive stick throwing (similar vibes with shotput). Or perhaps they’d like to watch their fellow animals in the equestrian. Let me know what you think.

My friends have an old, overweight rescue dog that I have never seen move at a pace faster than what you might call a saunter except when she sees a horse. When she sees a horse she immediately has to get to the horse as fast as possible. For the most part, you don’t want your old, fat dog to run up on a horse, so whatever she plans to do when she gets there remains a mystery, but this dog really wants to get close to horses.

Anyway I read all the Olympic events to a dog and for whatever reason the dog seemed most excited about “race walk.”

Josh:

Why do NFL teams actually kick field goals in preseason games?  If these are not about winning and losing, but merely practice, then why not attempt to get a first down no matter where you are? I get maybe one field goal, but more than that seems silly to me.  Am I nuts?

I mean, preseason games seem like one of the most justifiable times to kick the field goal. Go for the first down when it counts in the regular season, but give your kicker (a specialist in a field known to worry about “hiccups” and “demons” whom you will later ask to come out in some of the highest-pressure situations in the sport) as many “game-like” reps as possible when it doesn’t matter at all. If I’m a coach I’m practicing 70-yarders on third down in the preseason.

Nick:

I’m watching Olympic hurdles as I write this and just witnessed a chaotic bail by one of the athletes. My questions are a) is it weird that I was kind of hoping for this and don’t really know/care about the actual winners of this event and b) what are your top ranked sports that neutral fans only watch for crashes and bails? I’ve got hurdles as #1 and Nascar as a close second. 

I want to reverse this question and ask what is the one sport where it’d be the most fucked up to watch only for crashes and bails. First I thought diving; no one is tuning in hoping to see someone brain themselves on the platform. But then I remember shooting is one of the events. (As is archery but getting hit with an arrow is a classic slapstick comedy mishap.)

Shane:

What hyped-up media (movies, music, books) were you hesitant to dive into? You feel like you should partake in this big experience…but you’re not all that jazzed up about it. A recent example is Billie Eilish’s new “Happier Than Ever” album (already has two articles about it on The Ringer). It would feel like work and I’m not really all that eager to listen to it. Other examples are Marvel’s Loki and Wandavision.

This is me and pretty much all current television, especially streaming dramas. 

Every few months some variation of this happens in every group chat like clockwork:

Friend 1: has anyone else been watching Southwark.
Friend 2: no what’s it on
Friend 1: Veevu (I use my parents’ login)
Friend 3: is that the one with Catherine Keener
Friend 1: yes and the girl from the terrible live-action Pound Puppies movie.
Friend 2: oh yeah Lloyd Blankfein’s daughter
Friend 1: lol I never made that connection
Friend 3: is it any good
Friend 1: it’s ok

[one month later]

Friend 2: did everyone watch the Southwark finale yet
Friend 1: no I was saving it for tonight
Friend 2: it was pretty bad
Friend 3: I thought it was fine but I can’t figure out how they’re going to do a second season. Is there going to be another 30-year-old cold case Beth has a personal connection to in this town of like 200 people?

At this point everyone knows writers and directors are taking the sort of movies you can’t make anymore and stretching them out to miniseries length. And places like The Ringer and Vulture need to convince you less that this stuff is any good than simply that it’s worth talking about at all, because the entertainment sites need a stable of currently airing TV Shows to Talk About at any given time.

This is probably one of my more crankish opinions but even without streaming and Peak TV I just don’t think TV is a good medium for serious adult drama. It’s the best comedy medium ever created, and it’s perfect for procedurals and certain genres (detective shows, westerns, space westerns, space detective shows), but the TV equivalent of Literary Fiction has basically always stunk, compared to movies, at least until the end of the medium-sized film for adults. Now because someone couldn’t get an original gritty neo-noir made they turned Perry Mason from a guy who solved a whole damn mystery every week into a guy who spends seven hours suffering PTSD in leftover Boardwalk Empire sets while slowly figuring out the plot of Chinatown. Give me 22-episode seasons and 112-minute movies again, goddammit.

HALFTIME:

Brad:

Movers are here right now and I’m spending way too much time following them and adding wisdom like “ya that fits”, “you’re good” or giving ideas on how to load things in their truck like I’m the king or Tetris and they don’t know already. Real Dad shit. Any other activities like this where you provide no tangible benefit but interject anyway? 

Most of the time when you watch a coach yelling at his players in-game I feel like you’re actually seeing this in action. Like if it’s not an active clipboard, play-drawing situation or something I have to imagine most of what the coach is saying mid-game isn’t very helpful. “Hey guys, try harder.” “Be better at this sport.” How much can you really do?

Jeff:

I’m sure you’ve covered this topic before, but I need a sanity check. My 37-yo brother-in-law just shared that he changes his underwear only once every few days, sometimes going as long as 5 days before putting on a clean pair! But the strangest part is that he showers daily, if not more. The idea of putting my just-worn dirty underwear back on after showering is appalling to me, but that’s exactly what he does. My underwear is clearly the grossest and dirtiest item of clothing on my body, to be reworn only in emergencies. But my brother in law inexplicably argues his underwear is the cleanest clothing after wearing. Please confirm that his behavior is disgusting! Thank you.

I mean yeah, that’s deeply fucked up. I know there’s been a lot of bad discourse about the celebs showering or whatever but “changing your clothes regularly and showering less than other people” is fine for rich people who only sweat when they exercise. Doing the opposite is fucking perverse for anyone.

J.D.:

There is nothing more annoying than every single car ad that shows the car stopping itself inches from destroying a kid in the street with a ball and then the driver turning their spouse in the passenger seat or the kids in the back seat, with a look that says “Whew, that was close!” As the driver of the car, shouldn’t you have been the one to stop it, rather than rely on electronic nannies? Aren’t these new safety features just making drivers lazier and worse?

It used to be effectively impossible to forget to turn your lights on when you were driving at night because of a dead simple example of smart design: You couldn’t see your dashboard unless you turned your damn lights on. This probably hasn’t been a feature in cars now for more than a decade, and while most newer cars have automatic lights, in many of them that’s still a setting you have to actively select, just in case you for some reason wanted to drive in the dark with no lights on.

Now the reason automatic lights (and daytime running lights) aren’t standard, as they are in other countries, is that our safety regulations do not require them. They do require, on the other hand, rear cameras and automatic emergency braking, so now all cars have those. If regulations didn’t require them, they would absolutely be a feature you would have to pay extra for.

So, yes, this is a funny feature to advertise. It is like advertising that your car has seat belts. But, J.D., I am entirely in favor of the emergency braking requirement because it’s one of the very few safety requirements we demand that is helpful to people outside the car as opposed to inside of it.

Ed Burmila has a very good podcast episode about how car safety regulation in the wake of the Firestone Tires debacle completely changed car design in the United States by requiring that they be safer—for people in the vehicles—in rollover situations, which required (as he says) “wider pillars, which means heavier cars with smaller windows and bigger blind spots.” I’m not sure how many people remember what cars were like to drive 20 years ago, but you used to be able to actually see out the back of them. Now we can’t, and we have emergency braking, blind-spot warnings, and rear cameras instead. (And the car weighs an additional ton, which causes more air pollution.) I’m also not sure how many people know that other countries test automobiles for pedestrian safety and we simply don’t. And the main reason we don’t is because it would limit the aesthetic design of our SUVs and pickups. All of our safety improvements for decades have been designed solely for people inside the car and not outside of it.

The ideal traffic safety scheme would be for everyone to be driving small, light-weight, low-speed vehicles that are mostly open (i.e. not soundproofed), forcing drivers to pay close attention to their environment. But most of those vehicles wouldn’t be road legal because the driver couldn’t survive a collision with a much heavier, faster, taller, larger vehicle, and we’ve designed our roads to make sure only the person in that vehicle survives.

So, we’re doing basically the opposite of that while asking magic computers to account for how much less safe we are making automobiles for everyone outside of them. Our vehicles are getting taller and heavier, with poorer sight-lines and worse blind spots, ever more insulated from the world outside, with larger screens and more interior distractions. It’s not a question of safety features making drivers lazier and worse, it’s that we’re designing cars to protect drivers from their own lazy and bad driving, instead of designing cars and roads to protect the rest of us from lazy and bad drivers.

Ashley Feinberg:

Hi Alex! Hope you’re well. Here’s my question: If Andrew Cuomo finally gives in or resigns—what’s his next move?  Where will he live? What’s he going to do? Will he be voicing Mario in the next Mario game, “Mario, Except Increasingly Italian?” Would love to hear your thoughts. 

So for those who don’t know, Andrew Cuomo, the most divorced governor in the United States, lives in the New York State Executive Mansion in Albany, which is a normal thing for a governor to do, except that he doesn’t also have another house that he could live in. That is not really the sort of situation you would cultivate if you expected to ever stop being the governor, right? If my job came with a nice house, I’d still probably keep my apartment, just in case. I didn’t even like using my work-issued laptop! That’s been his living situation basically since he split with his longtime partner Sandra Lee.

I’ve seen it said that he lived in the mansion when his father was governor, too, which supposedly gives him some sort of special connection to the place, but Andrew was in his mid-20s by the time Mario became governor, so considering it a “family home” is a bit like me getting very emotional about the camper my dad and step-mom bought a few years ago. It’s a nice camper but I did not grow up in it, and if every elected official in the state asked me to leave the camper I would.

Anyway, now that Andrew Cuomo has, shockingly, actually resigned, what he’ll do next is devote his every waking moment to sabotaging his successor (Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and/or whoever wins the next election) with constant leaks to friendly reporters about how terrible everything is going now that Andrew Cuomo is not the governor, all while plotting a delusional attempt to someday be governor again, and then eventually the Mario Cuomo bridge will collapse while he’s driving a 1961 Ford Thunderbird over it.

Ashley:

Hi Alex! I just wrote in a few seconds ago, and I had another question—what do you think you and Andrew Cuomo have most in common? No ulterior motive, just curious!

I was a pretty bad manager but even now out of some weird sense of loyalty former subordinates will do unofficial work for me, like sending emails on my behalf instead of doing whatever their actual work is supposed to be.