I don't think it's his expressionless eyes or the tightly manicured beard; nor does it have to do with his knowledge of specific world events, with which he displays a certain ease. I think it starts with that voice -- unmodulated and yet overblown, a singsong that seems always to be posing a big question that never gets answered. The sound of it alone, tinny and incessant, perfectly captures the urgency and nothingness of the 24-hour cable news cycle.
What I'm trying to say is that Wolf Blitzer makes me nervous. Also anxious and cranky. Possible symptoms of the Blitzer Effect include headaches, nausea and low-grade dread.
Blitzer, a holdover from the era before the crawl, when CNN was CNN and he became a fixture of international reporting for the network, is not supposed to represent the problem with 24-hour cable news.
But that voice, it's killing me lately. There is precedent for this. It is the infamous case, some years ago, of the woman reportedly driven to seizures by the voice of "Entertainment Tonight" co-host Mary Hart. According to a letter published in the 1991 New England Journal of Medicine by neurologist Venkat Ramani of Albany Medical College, Hart's voice triggered in the patient "a feeling of pressure in the head, epigastric distress, and mental confusion.
"Systematic testing revealed that the seizures were precipitated only by the voice of the female cohost and not by visual stimulation, emotional anticipation, or background music; by other programs with a similar format; or by other female voices," Ramani went on. "During a two-year follow-up, the patient remained relatively seizure-free by assiduously avoiding the specific program and taking a combination of carbamazepine and divalproex sodium (for blackout spells)."
But "assiduously avoiding the specific program" is harder when you're conditioned to flip to CNN, where Blitzer is the eminence grise of the network. For this reason I can't exactly pinpoint when the Blitzer Effect took hold. If pressed, I would attribute these feelings to his overexposure during the Iraq War and the 2004 presidential election, but I can't be sure, for it has carried over to otherwise ordinary news days, with Blitzer anchoring "Wolf Blitzer Reports" daily from 2 to 3 p.m., posing questions and bellowing headlines with that Blitzerian alarm.
"Black smoke rising from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel!" he announced the other day, as if the place were on fire, "a sign that the world must continue to wait for a new pope."
The previous week, at the beginning of "Wolf Blitzer Reports," he was posing Blitzer's Big Questions. "Is Iran's nuclear program past the point of no return? And will Israel do something about that?" Then his voice went slightly lower as he teased another story: "Getting out of Gaza: Is an Israeli pullout good enough for the Palestinians?"
So many questions. They aren't bad, per se. The trouble is the faux-Talmudic way Blitzer poses them, as if he's on the cusp of uncovering the key-to-it-all when no, it's just cable news, where so-called reaction and analysis fill the hours, leaving the viewer where he's always left: stubbornly unenlightened.
To be sure, all of cable news exists to instill in its viewers a sense of perpetual, Blitzerian anticipation followed by a great big anticlimax.
"That beast that has to be fed of the 24-hour news cycle has forced, I think, cable news to rely too heavily on analysis," said Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," interviewed recently on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." "Because what do you do once you've said, 'This thing happened in the world?' " On the show, Colbert, in his role as senior "Daily Show" correspondent, was heard mocking the investigation of CBS' and "60 Minutes' " use of questionable documents that raised doubts about President Bush's military service.
"CBS stated in the report the president was derelict in his duty," Colbert says. "Cable news knows you simply need to raise the question: Was President Bush derelict in his duty? You see, you don't need the right facts when you've got the right inflection." Interesting. Does Wolf Blitzer have a voice that annoys me? Or is he simply a symptom of a larger malaise? And when will this malaise end? Are we past the point of no return?