The Road Goes Ever On, But the View of the Campaign Trail Never Changes

I have been living in the woods -- literally; I've been hiking the Appalachian Trail -- for the past month. Not quite under a rock, but close enough. So imagine my surprise when I returned to discover what I'd missed: nothing. Absolutely nothing. Four whole weeks -- 28 days, 672 hours -- of round-the-clock cable news on three separate networks, and it's all the same as when I left.

Sure, there have been some good stories. But according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a full 72.25% of the cable news hole last month, on average, was dedicated to the 2008 presidential campaign. 72.25%! That leaves only a paltry 27.75% -- less than 7 hours per day -- to discuss the whole remaining ball of wax, from Iraq, to the health care crisis, to Tibet, to the economy, and everything in between. Perhaps, perhaps, such laziness could be justified if that 17+ hours per day were spent discussing the issues. But who knows, because rather than focus on anything meaningful, the cable news nets have chosen primarily to focus on the so-called "horse race."

For the past month, I have thought and talked ceaselessly of only three things: gear, food, and miles. Since I was attempting to hike from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail, these obsessions were not only healthy, but also highly relevant to my goal. For the past month(s), the cable news nets have droned endlessly about the candidates and their surrogates, discussing everything from fund raising to vocal stumbles to lapel pins. Yet have the viewers actually learned anything of importance? Learned where the candidates stand on any issues that don't rhyme with "Ewok" or "Wealth Fare"? No. Instead we've learned, over and over and over again, that -- brace yourselves -- Obama's black (OMG!!1), and that one of the best public speakers in the world has been paid quite handsomely for his talents.

Well, I guess racing horses pulls in the ratings. So, apparently, does beating them to death (for 17 hours a day). Is that any excuse for lazy reporting and even lazier programming? Perhaps if I held stock in Time Warner or News Corp, my answer would be different.

So, what I have learned this past month? Very little from the news nets, certainly. But I did take a critical lesson from my abortive walk in the woods: there's sometimes a very large gap between perception and reality, between what we think we want or need and what we really do. I thought I wanted to hike 2,175 miles to Maine, but it turned out that 135 miles to North Carolina was enough. Producers think that viewers want to hear about Obama's pastor (because god knows, no religious figures in the history of time and space have ever said anything even remotely controversial before), but what I'd rather know instead is where the candidates stand on issues they will have the power to affect once elected. Like their takes on preserving National Scenic Trails, perhaps.

The lesson from all of this is that if something no longer works for you (and the news nets most assuredly do not work as well as they could or should), it is time to go home, regroup, and begin something new. Sure, the news nets, like the many mountains I climbed this past month, have some spectacular views. But the real answers to your questions, the news that will nourish and inform you, lie elsewhere. Try a newsweekly (or monthly), perhaps; the same comparatively leisurely production schedule and attention to detail that have won these magazines repeated awards and recognition will also keep you both informed and entertained. Or how about a little NPR, or some PBS, or even a book or three? Who knows -- you might soon find yourself getting off the tired old cable news net trail and heading down a wonderful and fulfilling new path.