What a world we inhabit. It spins with such quicksilver speed. When I last wrote, on Friday morning, Rick Sanchez had a big job. Now here I am at the keys again, and Rick Sanchez has no job.
Perhaps you haven’t tracked the precipitous demise of CNN’s premier stuntmeister; perhaps you never saw him in action. That doesn’t really matter, because you’re already familiar with the flashy archetype that is ubiquitous on every local news broadcast. Sanchez, who was plucked by the network from a Florida loudmouth show, always seemed a tad light on the intellect scale – and that was no errant impression, as I can personally attest, having once endured a guest gig on one of his shows. He seemed to TALK LIKE THIS as compensation for all he didn’t know.
But I come here not to bury Rick Sanchez, but to contextualize him, to suggest that he was merely a symptom of a cheap-thrill infotainment culture that increasingly favors bombast over brains. He died for our sins.
Granted, during his six years many of his dimmest remarks became legend. He was a big “personality” whose excesses became grist for media watchdogs such as Jon Stewart, and apparently Stewart ticked him off one too many times. Because last Thursday, on a Sirius radio show, Sanchez assailed Stewart as an anti-Hispanic bigot (Sanchez is Cuban-American), and when the host pointed out that Stewart is Jewish and therefore disinclined to bash minorities, Sanchez unloaded with the money quote that put him out of the money: “Please, what are you kidding? I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they, the people in this country who are Jewish, are an oppressed minority? Yeah.” With that last word lathered in sarcasm.
CNN, naturally concerned that many Americans might see Sanchez’s remarks as a reiteration of the old saw about conspiratorial Jews in high places, cut him loose late Friday with barely 20 farewell words. That decision was probably necessary, but I do feel a bit bad for the guy. I seriously doubt he intended to sound like an anti-Semite, as a latter-day adherent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; heck, I bet he has never heard of the Protocols. No, he was merely being true to his authentic inarticulate self. He lost his cool and expressed himself poorly, just when he most needed to be politic.
The thing is, Sanchez on that radio show was just a more meat-headed version of the Sanchez that CNN willingly ushered to the national stage. My favorite Sanchez moment was when he arranged to have some cops taser him on camera, and after he finished howling in pain, he shared his big scoop with the viewer: “It hurts!” My second favorite was when he derided Barack Obama as “the cotton-pickin’ president of the United States.” My third favorite was when he offered this incisive analysis of a breaking-news story about a volcano eruption in Iceland: “When you think of a volcano, you think of Hawaii and long words like that. You don’t think of Iceland. You think it’s too cold to have a volcano there.” My fourth favorite moment occurred when a tsunami expert used the term “nine meters” and Sanchez interrupted to ask, “And nine meters in English is…?”
CNN wanted an edgy, controversial personality, somebody who would create buzz. After all, that’s what the game is all about. But CNN didn’t want Sanchez to, as we say, “cross the line.” (Whatever that line is. Nobody ever quite defines it, given that the line keeps moving all the time, further into tawdry territory.) CNN wanted Rick to be Rick – without being too Rick. Yet it seemed inevitable that he would finally go beyond the pale, given the traits he brought to the table – traits that CNN sought out six years ago, in its desperation to boost viewership.
That’s the real crux of the Sanchez story. I feel some sympathy for CNN, too. Nearly 20 years ago, when I spent several days in CNN’s Atlanta newsroom doing research for a magazine piece, the network was the proud exemplar of hard-news coverage, delivered hot off the griddle. Back then, if you tuned in at the top of virtually any hour, you typically got the straight skinny. As I wrote in my 1991 magazine piece (and how quaint this now reads today), “famous faces have never been important at CNN, where celebrity and ideology take a back seat to technology.” One top CNN executive told me, “We’re not going to whore up the network with glitz and gee-whizzery.”
But as our political culture became increasingly polarized in the ensuing years, and as the choice of cable channels multiplied, and as the mass cable audience increasingly favored infotainment over information, the network checked its ratings and decided that it had to embrace glitz and gee-whizzery. (Sanchez, in a recent moment of gee-whizzery: “Guess what! John Boehner sent me a Tweet! Personally!”)
Exit traditional dispassion, hello passion. That’s why Campbell Brown’s journalistically responsible prime-time show (which, naturally, tanked in the ratings) will be officially supplanted tonight with a ‘tude and opinion show that pairs a (talented) conservative columnist with a fallen governor who digs hookers.
The glitz factor is why Rick Sanchez got tapped for stardom in the first place, so that’s why I’ll cut him a break. He didn’t dumb down the news discourse. In the final analysis, we did.