Bob Franken: And the winner is …

I am happy to report that television news hangs on, even in this fragmented world of social media, where opinions spew at hyperspeed, unencumbered by facts. We still tune in as the anchors present the day’s events, whether they are Ned and Annette Network or Larry and Lorraine Local. So keeping track of sound bites is still valid.

For those too young to comprehend, a “sound bite” is the verbal form of a tweet. But they are ever-shrinking. The marketing consultants who have such a strong and insidious influence on broadcast journalism have decided that viewers have a nano attention span, and have ordered that their client stations — managed largely by people who couldn’t care less about responsible reporting — shorten the length of the sound bites. In my long and checkered career in newsbiz, I’ve witnessed sound chunks being shrunk to sound bites. Now they are sound spurts.

Before I seem too sanctimonious about all that, I was a willing participant in sound-spurt reporting, knowing as I do the value of a paycheck.

Some sound spurts are better than others. In fact, some are championship caliber, so bizarre that they stand out in the babble of reporting. For a while, I pondered a competition for the best one of the week. Obviously, in the age of Donald Trump, that has shriveled to the best of the day or even the hour.

This is easier than someone might think, because all one has to do is focus on what he says. When it comes to outlandish comments, he is in a crass by himself. For those of us who chronicle his drumbeat of outrage, he is the gift who keeps on giving.

How appropriate then that on Christmas Day he presented this present to the reporters who were forced to give up their holidays. He had decided it would be terrible optics to do his usual hibernation in the opulent warm surroundings of his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, when so many federal employees were out in the cold with the partial government shutdown (and yes, “out in the cold” is a gross exaggeration). So he and Melania were spending their time in Washington.

After they ran out of forced conversation, and he’d had his daily Twitter catharsis, he was so desperate that he decided to come down to the Oval Office and take a few questions.

Among his responses was this gem: “It’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country but, other than that, I wish everybody a very merry Christmas.”

Now why is that such a winner? He says something is a “disgrace” all the time, and blames anyone and everyone else for the nation’s problems. That’s exactly the point. He does say that all the time. Right now, it seems everyone is upset about his impetuous decision to pull out of Syria, and Trump is particularly incensed at how Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has managed to get such favorable coverage when Mattis resigned and trashed him. There’s also this shutdown, because he’s insisting on a border wall that he promised to his yay-hoos. And of course there’s the stock market going up and down like a yo-yo, keeping a few worrying whether the string will break, leaving us with a “Trump Depression.”

That’s seemingly overwrought, as is the rhetoric about that other form of Trump emotional depression, based on his growing political isolation. If we are going to have a sound bite competition, we probably should have a best of the tweets contest, too. Currently, that’s an easy one, considering Trump’s possible cry for help: “I am all alone (poor me) in the White House …”

Maybe he was joking, or perhaps not. Could he be somewhere in between — possibly “marginal,” the word he used to a 7-year-old to describe her continuing belief in Santa Claus. Could our president, considering the range (or is that derange), of his utterances, be emotionally “marginal”?


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