In Scriptwriting, We Call It A “Yes-No-Yes-No” Argument; In Cable News They Call It “Cable News”

A confession: though I write scripts for a living, I despise reading the damned things. It’s not necessarily the scriptwriter’s fault; the screenplay format itself defeats many a talented writer. But, storytelling itself can defeat writers too — especially when they’re mediocre at it. Journalists are storytellers first and foremost. Their canvas is the present or a deep dive into something from the past that helped shape and explains the present. But, regardless of when the story you’re telling takes place, the principles of storytelling remain the same. It’s all about adding information, scene by scene, to propel the story forward through all its good parts to a satisfying conclusion. Scenes that don’t add information don’t belong. Instead of moving the story forward, pointless scenes bring the story to a halt — or tell a different story — their own. Or, more likely, no story whatsoever.

The epitome of the utterly useless scene is two characters engaged in a “yes-no, yes-no” argument that literally goes nowhere. Scenes don’t necessarily have to have the words “yes” and “no” to be “yes-no” scenes. They just have to contain an argument that goes on and on without actually getting anywhere. You know, like the American news media reporting any story that isn’t a royal wedding.

With the Donald Trump story, the “yes-no, yes-no” scene often began with Trump doing something outrageous — like giving away secrets or backing Vlad Putin’s agenda over our own. The news media would look to the rest of the GOP, expecting them to be just as shocked as the press was pretending to be. Yet the Republicans never flinched. Their loyalty to Trump never faltered. “Why do the Republicans remain so loyal to Trump?” our news media talking heads would demand to know.

The talking head panel would then kick the question around — same as they did the day before and the day before that. That they kept having the same damned conversation wasn’t because an answer was so elusive and hard to tease out from the shadows. No, it was because our news media — insisting that “both sides do it” — have made themselves incapable of framing any story correctly. If you truly believe that “both sides do it”, it’s because you think that people are all, at the core, alike; the fact that they take differing sides is just them being “political” — which, of course, “both sides do”. But the two sides in this conversation — conservatives vs progressives — are entirely different in their vision for the future and for America.

Trust me on this — conservatives want one thing for the future (they want it to look like the past as much as possible — the thing conservatives want to conserve) while progressives want the diametric opposite. Unlike conservatives, progressives don’t fear the future. It’s the past that progressives want to get away from — our racist, misogynist, corrupt (and now treasonous) past. Of course, we want to prosecute all those the people who did these terrible things first (as we must). If cable news shows really wanted to, they could make these conversations on their air much more meaningful. But, first, they’d have to put down their cynicism and see the world they’re reporting on as it actually is.

In a movie or television script, the goal always is to move the story forward toward its conclusion. Every scene must both build upon the scenes that came before it and then add new information that will propel the story into the next scene. This requires the storyteller to continually aggregate all the new information into the story — baking it into the architecture in essence. Otherwise, every new scene would start — as cable news shows do — by returning to square one where we didn’t know the things we’ve subsequently learned. That’s how we get to a place where our news media can’t decide whether or not Donald Trump is/was/will always be a racist.

Anyone who says and stands by “Mexicans are rapists” is a racist. He’s telling us so. All we have to do is listen to the man. It’s stupid to ask racists if they’re racist to begin with. How the hell would they know? They have zero perspective on racism BECAUSE THEY’RE RACISTS. And racism, like beauty, isn’t in the racist’s eye, it’s in the “beholder’s”. In racism’s case, that will be the racist’s victim. THEY’RE the only people qualified to answer that question. They’re the only ones who actually know.

Our cable news talking heads can’t decide if Republicans are honest actors or not because they can’t aggregate the information that would tell them they’re not. Honest actors don’t obstruct justice the way Republicans do. They don’t stand with seditionists and traitors. They don’t do everything within their power to undermine our democracy because — being so regressive — no one will vote for them. But Republicans do. And we know that because they’ve been doing it for almost five years now. That’s a pretty reliable data set.

In a movie or TV show, the presence of a “Yes-no, yes-now” argument is evidence that the storyteller isn’t up to the job. In American politics, it’s evidence that a Republican is nearby. And so is corruption.

What Both Sides Actually DO Do…

When all this is done & dusted, I want us to promise ourselves that we’re going to enshrine in law the illegality of “Both Sides Do It” journalism.

The Chuck Todd-ification of American journalism has not worked out well for us because (Duh!) it’s based on bullshit — and the nincompoop notion that everyone and everything is political. It’s not. If a Republican mugs me, my issue is with him mugging me, not his political affiliation.

Similarly — when a Republican violates the Constitution or commits treason, my objection is entirely to the fact that he’s committing a crime. The fact that the crime is being committed against me — a law abiding registered Democrat who demands that the Constitution be upheld — STILL isn’t political.

Ironically, the Republican has behaved politically at every step along the way.

When a reporter like Chuck Todd gets his hands on a story though — if the Democrat is objecting to the Republican (even the Republican was literally murdering him), Chuck would insist that the Democrat is objecting solely because the guy trying to kill him had a different political affiliation.

I’m watching live right now as Katy Tur debates the idea that we’ve come to see actual RIGHT & WRONG in political terms. That’s insane. The fact that Republicans refuse to even read transcripts — that the press knows (having read them) are filled with actual EVIDENCE OF CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR) should tip them off to that fact. This isn’t about politics.

Both sides do not commit treason as a means to hold onto power.

But one side clearly does. One side continues to defend a president whose ties to Russia are flat out treasonous. I’m old enough to remember when that word could NEVER be uttered on a cable news set without creating a firestorm of controversy.

Now? Who DOESN’T speak the word “treason”?

That’s no because the word suddenly got popular, it’s because treason is actually afoot.

I sure do wish CNN & MSNBC would get this through their thick skulls — only one side commits treason to hold onto power.

Only one side stands between traitors and the end of our Republic.

The Difference Between Bullshit & Horse Shit — And, Yes, There IS A Difference…

I think of “now” as A Golden Age Of Bullshit. And we are the mountaineers bravely climbing Bullshit’s highest peak — the Trump White House.

Humanity has invented and lived through countless Ages of Nonsense, Lies, Rubbish & Self-Delusion. Pick a religion. Add a little dogma. Bam! You have bullshit on your hands now. The Golden Ages are when religionistas take up arms against each other — killing on a grand scale in order to prove that their imaginary friend can kick the other guy’s imaginary friend’s ass.

Bullshit can kill people. Climate deniers use bullshit to justify doing nothing as if “doing nothing” would prove climate change isn’t real. But climate change will happen and destroy human lives regardless of what humans think. Only what humans “DO” can effect or even, hopefully, slow what we humans have done to our own freaking habitat.

We all know bullshit when we see it, smell it, hear it, right? It’s like they used to define pornography. We can’t say quite what it is (it covers so much territory), but we know it when we “experience” it. It’s that distinctive.

Horse shit, by comparison, is milder stuff. Horse shit is your idiot RW uncle at Thanksgiving “Yeah, but”-ing every argument, because he still thinks blaming the Clintons works.

Horse shit is your kid missing curfew and swearing they were caught in traffic.

Horse shit is 60% of all Cable News talking head panels. It’s rubbish — mostly harmless, masturbatory navel gazing done by second tier talent who keep getting air time because there’s so little first tier talent. The other panels are 10% worthwhile conversations (mostly via Nicolle Wallace’s Deadline White House) and 20% outright bullshit.

There are certain regular guests on some of these shows who are especially good at pointing out the dividing line between horse shit & bullshit. Dr. Jason Johnson is always good at laser-lighting it. Elie Mystal is amazing. So’s Zina Maxwell and Anand Giridharadas. Dr. Eddie Glaude articulates the dividing line beautifully. So does Maria Hinojosa.

Hmmmmm… Do ya suppose it’s a coincidence that those most skilled at seeing the difference between horse shit and bullshit have been most beaten up by bullshit? Slavery was/is bullshit. Racism is bullshit. All bigotry is bullshit. All misogyny is bullshit. I’m biased. I’d say pretty much all conservative thinking is bullshit (whereas people thinking conservatives and progressives could ever work together again — that’s just horse shit).

Our Problem Is We Are Living Inside A Bonkers Theater Of The Absurd Play — And Don’t Know It

Rene Magritte’s Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe poses the perfect “is it?/isn’t it? existential question (true fact — its actual name is The Treachery Of Images). What really is — or, more to the point, is anything really “is”? Is anything real?

For those of us (me, for instance) who love wrestling with esoteric brain puzzles, this is a top of the line WWF cage match.

On the one hand — the viewer has to disagree — “What’re ya talking about? Of course it’s a pipe!” But, as Magritte himself pointed out when his piece first started making viewers crazy, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”

What really is vs what actually isn’t. Can we believe anything anymore?

For the non-theater majors, Theater Of The Absurd was a literary genre that emerged from World War II like existentialism’s louder, loonier twin sister. Like existentialism, Theater Of The Absurd saw human beings as pointless. After all, didn’t most of humanity just fight a world-wide duel nearly to the death?

For comparison’s sake, a very similar reaction occurred after World War I. The Dadaist movement rejected everything about capitalism and its “values”. Art itself had no value to the Dadaists — even as they created it. A famous, wonderful example is Marcel Duchamp’s series of “readymades” including this shovel. The shovel, Ducamp claimed, was already art. All the artist had to do was sign his name on it.

Dadaists got what existentialists & Theater Of The Absurdists later got — our faith in humans being logical, rational and just is based entirely on bullshit. We’re all bonkers and need to face that fact. Theater Of The Absurd put words in the mouth of our insanity.

The most famous — most performed — example of Theater Of The Absurd is Samuel Becket’s Waiting For Godot.

Spoiler Alert — Godot never shows. That’s the point — lots of waiting, lots of speculating, lots of hoping, lots of random cruelty — and all for nought. Who knows if Godot even exists?

For pure existential crunchy goodness though, the quintessential Theater Of The Absurd play is Eugene Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) — which has played continually at the Theatre De La Huchette in Paris since 1957. Nothing in the play means anything. A husband tries to remember where he’s met his wife before — perhaps in the bed they’ve shared every night for years? All information is meaningless. All communication futile. “Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there.”

And what’s the point of fighting it? “Who has any interest in prolonging this confusion? I don’t know. Let’s not try to know. Let’s leave things as they are.”

A more recent version comes from Alex Cox’s exquisitely nihilistic movie Repo Man: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”

Does that not feel like us — in the here & now? Does it not feel like we’ve come all this way only to discover we never left home. Well, some of us never left home. Some of us still live in our parents’ basement — if mentally.

Watch any hour of CNN or MSNBC and I DARE you not to feel like you’re Waiting For Godot — justice in our case. I DARE you not to feel like the dialogue spewing from any talking head discussion has all the weight of a mal-formed soap bubble. The one thing you can probably count on, when the bubble bursts, the soap will get in your eye.