Rick Sanchez has that special something.

It’s more complicated than simply being someone people love to hate. There is a certain rare balance of unimaginable awfulness and underlying vulnerability that makes some of the world’s biggest egos simply irresistible.

Think for a moment about all the people currently flocking to Frost/Nixon, the Ron Howard film about a 31-year-old admission from a failed president. Despite whatever distaste Americans have for Richard Nixon, we also can’t get enough of him.

Another example of a repelling-compelling personality would be Jerry Lewis, who has built an entire career exploiting this quality.

Of course no single moment crystallizes this convergence of lameness and humanity like the classic clip of Rick Sanchez being Tasered.

Watching it, his then-colleagues at CNN are torn between justice and sympathy. He arouses a certain sense of pity, which makes it hard to muster any ill will against the guy.

Yesterday, though, someone nevertheless identified him as the personification of our very culture’s corrosion.

Last night at 6:26 Eastern, Rick Sanchez tweeted a link to a blog post consisting of a large excerpt from yesterday’s column by former White House communications strategist Lawrence J. Haas, who served as press secretary for Vice President Al Gore.

Entitled “The Pathetic Rick Sanchezation of America,” the piece rips Sanchez as “a font of low-brow banality, with observations more appropriate for a barstool than an anchor chair.”

But this is more than just media criticism. Haas uses Rick Sanchez to indict our national idiocracy:

Sanchez personifies far more than media’s descent, however. He epitomizes a cultural infantilizing that corrodes our capacity for deliberation. At just the time we need to get serious – with our economy in turmoil and our enemies taking our measure – we seem less equipped to do so.

At least regarding TV news specifically, I have heard a number of people remark that it seems to be aimed mostly at four to six-year-olds these days. A former colleague of mine, Greg Berg, blogged about local TV coverage of our weather:

During the last snowfall, Channel 12 had “team coverage” in full swing, meaning that for any given newscast there might be four reporters stationed in four different locales, and each one reporting exactly the same thing- it’s been snowing! Lyra O’Brien is especially maddening in this regard. The last time she was “out in the field,” she stood next to a parked car and gave us a careful description of how its windshield had been pretty much clear an hour ago, but now there is about a half inch of powdery snow covering it.

Back in the late 1960s, Al Primo incorporated “happy talk” as a key element of his Eyewitness News format, with great success. Now, forty years later, the industry has devolved into baby talk.

Okay, so that might be the way a local Milwaukee station covers snow falling in Wisconsin in December, but how does an international cable news network allocate its resources on the night America elects its first black president?

Why, of course it first spends an estimated $300,000 or $400,000 to produce a phony hologram, then employs anchor Wolf Blitzer to sell this trick to us, in the simplest possible terms:

Meanwhile, CNN recently cut 16-year veteran Miles O’Brien and the six producers in his science, environment and technology unit. They also said goodbye to Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre, and correspondent Kathleen Koch.

Oh, and Justice Department/Supreme Court correspondent Kelli Arena is also out.

Rick Sanchez is still there, though — and last night, attacked by Lawrence J. Haas, he tweeted his defense:

In an age when more staid news organizations compose and publish their reasoning in quaint blogs, Rick Sanchez has a Twitter account.

Yes, the times they are a changin’. Many of those somebody-elses who used to write things for news readers to read have been let go, just like workers in virtually every other segment of our economy.

Back on October 26, 2003, an essay by Leah Eskin appeared in the Chicago Tribune‘s Sunday magazine. In it, she noted that the much-touted “service economy” has, in reality, turned out to be a self-service economy in which — as in the U-Haul model — you now get to do everything yourself:

U be the banker! Get your money out yourself or pay extra. U type and file. Because your administrative assistant has been exchanged for a handheld widget with a stick. U book your own flight. Or the airline will disconnect you. And should U manage to write yourself an e-ticket, U check yourself in.

Other writers have observed the same thing. Ellen Goodman wrote about our new, do-it-all-yourself world this past July:

I am tempted to say that customer service has gone the way of the house call, but that reminds me that even medicine has been outsourced to patients who buy do-it-yourself kits to test and track everything from HIV to blood pressure. In an era when every operation short of brain surgery is done on an outpatient basis, nursing care has already been outsourced to family members whose entire medical training consists of TiVo-ing “Grey’s Anatomy.”

As with everything else, so also with news reporting.

Some stations are shifting the load of a whole news crew onto one person’s shoulders, and trying to pass off these “new” one-man bands as an innovation — “multimedia journalists.”

Ultimately, though, the biggest savings is realized by cutting reporters out of the picture altogether. CNN now promotes its iReport system as “Unedited. Unfiltered. News.” — as if those are desirable qualities.

Increasingly, news reporting consists of soliciting rudimentary exclamations from the audience, and then repeating them back to the audience — exactly the same game that adults play with little babies lacking vocabulary.

Do you think the $700 billion bailout will save the economy? Do you? If you do, then text “yes.” And then later, we’ll tell you if you do. Koochikoo!

My man Rick Sanchez is on the cutting edge of this new innovation in news gathering:

This is where that special magic comes in. This is where the cheap trickster, sensing he’s been sniffed out, curls himself up into the position of a helpless victim. It’s downright adorable.

Richard Nixon, you know, had his haters too, as he told Henry Kissinger:

Never forget. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times and never forget it.

It would be impossible to hate Rick Sanchez if he really was, like the fictional Ted Baxter before him, just plain stunningly clueless and inept.

On occasion, however, Sanchez has revealed himself to be a reasonably intelligent person. On October 30, he briefly cornered Michael Goldfarb, the deputy communications director for the McCain/Palin campaign:

Last year, Sanchez confronted fellow CNN blusterer Lou Dobbs on the air for a little exhibition boxing on the topic of immigration.

So I have to imagine that Rick Sanchez knows what he’s doing. Perhaps he sees the dismantling of journalism — and dismantling of the overall concept of employment — as inevitable. Perhaps he’s just trying to ride the bronco as long as he can before he, too, gets thrown off, in favor of some automated system that echoes tweets back to their senders without the middleman.

Nixon, however, is not the leader he identifies with:

Yes, Barack Obama utilized new technologies and social networking — including Twitter — to build a campaign that was co-driven by his supporters themselves.

The difference, though, is that Obama did not abandon his job as a candidate and have his supporters choose his positions, write his speeches, pick out his ties and select his campaign songs.

While actively seeking input and ideas, Obama has been anything but a passive reflection of America’s dumbfounded outrage. Rather than amplifying and feeding back the noise, Obama has sought to become its antidote. He has just spent several weeks appointing a cabinet of grown-ups, and it seems he expects them all to make decisions, take actions, and actually do their jobs.

In April of 1974, Robert M. Pirsig‘s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values was published. In it, Pirsig examined the metaphysics of Quality and asked “What is best?” Among other things, he used the analogy of keeping a motorcycle in proper working order so that one could, for instance, rely on it during a road trip.

Beginning in about 1993, as part of his Renewing American Civilization course, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich promoted a different definition of quality. His came from W. Edwards Deming, and in my own mind, I have crudely reduced it to “What sells?

A slightly fuller synopsis can be found elsewhere on the Web:

Dr. W. Edwards Deming taught that by adopting appropriate principles of management, organizations can increase quality and simultaneously reduce costs (by reducing waste, rework, staff attrition and litigation while increasing customer loyalty). The key is to practice continual improvement and think of manufacturing as a system, not as bits and pieces.

Back then, as I listened to both Gingrich and Deming, it struck me that McDonalds might serve as a perfect example of the principles they were putting forth.

Since then, Mark Knopfler has wriiten his own ode to the Ray Kroc method in his 2004 song “Boom, Like That“:

These boys have got the touch
It’s clean as a whistle and it don’t cost much
Wham bam don’t wait long, shake, fries, patty, you’re gone

But how would Robert Pirsig’s test of quality — “What is best?” — rate the McDonald’s definition of a meal? Is driving your car up to a window and having someone hand you a bag containing paper-wrapped piles of cheap starches and protein, loaded with fat and salt, really “Quality” just because of the billions and billions sold?

One of Gingrich’s assertions back then was that there was no longer any need for public broadcasting, because cable TV had given us The History Channel and A&E.

Are these two definitions of Quality in total opposition? Can what’s best also sell?

A 2007 study by the Missouri School of Journalism found that newspapers can actually make money by investing in a quality product:

The most important finding is that newspapers are under-spending in the newsroom and over-spending in circulation and advertising,” [Esther] Thorson said. “If you invest more in the newsroom, do you make more money? The answer is yes. If you lower the amount of money spent in the newsroom, then pretty soon the news product becomes so bad that you begin to lose money.

I can only hope that at some point we will, like the interest rates before us, reach some sort of absolute bottom. I have to hope that our race to cut and gut all costs involved in producing everything will run out of gas — that someone, somewhere, will realize that irrational profitability is indeed irrational, and that it’s better to make some realistic money selling a decent product than to simply cash in the scrap copper from the wiring of your former hologram machine to dress up yet another quarter’s bottom line.

If that day does indeed come, it would be interesting to hear from Rick Sanchez again — and possibly talk to him about cheeseburgers, maybe get some sort of apology.

Update:

Using a previous comment system, Rick Sanchez posted the following comment on December 31, 2008:

Here’s my reaction. I believe you’re uncomfortable with what is not familiar to you. You’re almost half a century old and TV news is about the same age. It makes sense the two of you would want to protect each other. That’s natural. I get it.

What you’ve become used to is much akin to hypnopedia, you just don’t know it. Here’s how it works, you’re lulled into a level of comfort by a real pretty or handsome anchor reading stuff to you that is smart sounding, but often not very far reaching or thought provoking. No gut checks, no emotion, no real human reaction. No pain, no gain. By the way, not always, but often; the person reading to you has no idea what he’s reading. He doesn’t have to. He just has to make you like him. And you buy into it, because it’s what you’re used to. Think Marshal Macluhan’s cold medium description.

By being the antithesis of that, what I’m doing is more akin to another Macluhanism: his description about the “basic assumption of technology,” which essentially says that as technology changes the way of communicating should also change.

Watching me do the news without a format, without scripts, without a teleprompter, and making decisions and judgments on the fly while reacting to a twitter, my space and/or facebook consensus is likely disconcerting to you.

It’s much the same as the unconscious reaction that occurs in me when I hear my kids playing their music. Hate it, don’t get it! I’m used a certain rhythm, just like the news rhythm you’ve gotten used to.

My show prep is eight hours long and involves a full staff writing scripts and ideas in my head, rather than on paper. It culminates with something that is invariably imperfect, but effective if nothing else by how it’s being received.
In just three months, we’ve beaten FOX news in my hour for the first time in six years and we’ve done it in two consecutive months, October and November. But the coolest part of it is realizing that the younger the viewer, the more apt they are to watch. Our 18 to 45 audience demos a huge surprise for a CNN daytime show.

I offer this note neither to diminish the critical points you raise, nor to seem unappreciative about the fact you would take time out to offer it; rather to offer a different perspective. After all, you and I likely have more in common than you may think. If nothing else, our age.

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