Diary of a Shutdown: A Furloughed Worker Watches 24 Hours of CNN
On the Mundane Horror of Government Shutdown News
Wednesday, January 16th, 8:00 am
Normally at this minute I’d be hanging up my winter coat and sitting down at my desk at work, but because of the government shutdown, I’m at home on the couch, my chocolate brown, long-haired dachshund in my lap, watching CNN on my laptop. Dunder—who my girlfriend L. and I rescued at a shelter in Scranton, Pennsylvania—is more than content. He has been walked extra far this morning, fed, and has a buddy on the couch for the day. The sun has risen, the birds are chirping, and Dunder is not worried about the bills.
Hosts Alisyn Camerota and John Berman, both crisply dressed, welcome viewers to this hour of New Day, noting that it’s Day 26 of the government shutdown. They introduce former Gov. John Kasich, (now “Senior Political Commentator” John Kasich) onto the show. It’s a minute before he says of the shutdown, “But now it’s like ‘What’s going on down there?” and “We pay them to do. Their. Jobs!”
I’m one of 2 million government contractor employees, along with 800,000 federal employees, who would like to be paid to do their jobs right now. For the last month, like many others, I’ve been trying to figure out if I have my job back by constantly refreshing The New York Times, the Washington Post, and Twitter, then tuning into CNN.
It’s absurd. And so, as I have nothing else to do, I’ve decided to meet absurdity with absurdity and watch 24 straight hours of CNN.
Alisyn Camerota on absurdity: “This is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants news cycle.”
The news banner box at the bottom of the screen reads, “Furloughed Govt. Workers Scrambling to Make Ends Meet.”
Dunder has already lost interest and moved to another chair, where he’s curled up in the shape of a croissant. But I’m drawn in. I expected these stories because I know people living them. There’s something validating about our collective narrative being heard.
Every furloughed worker is faced with different challenges. A furloughed IRS Analyst named Amy Walker is profiled. She’s been looking for part time work at places like Target and Walmart. Her situation is more dire than mine; she has kids she needs to feed, whereas I only have to fill a dog bowl twice a day. We’re all trying to make ends meet.
I had just started my job a week before the shutdown began as a quality assurance specialist at the Foreign Service Institute, where I edit and fact-check online training and eLearning for diplomats and other employees in the Department of State. One of those is training on “Overseas Crisis Readiness,” which helps diplomats prepare a plan for themselves and, if they have them, their families and pets in the case of a natural or man-made crisis. A lot of the government contractors and federal employees I’ve met and seen on the news share an affinity for public service. It’s in my blood. My parents are both civil servants: my dad as a superintendent of a wastewater plant and my mother as a 5th grade teacher.
The segment continues with a graphic of a tweet by Admiral Karl Schultz, who stated that Coast Guard employees will not receive pay; video of the second substitute hiring event that Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools has hosted for federal employees; video of the Miami airport, where free food is being given out to TSA workers; the Twitter page of chef José Andrés and his video announcing that he’ll be giving out free meals to the furloughed; then, back to the profile of Amy Walker, who chokes up as she describes wanting to support her family. “The government has really slapped us in the face,” she says.
We’re still out of work.
CNN literally sounds the brass—Breaking News. A suicide bomber has murdered several people in a U.S. patrolled city in Syria, in an attack which will be claimed later in the morning by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
It hasn’t even been one hour and the news has made me feel both sad and powerless. I can do little about the petty politics happening just three miles away from my apartment in Alexandria, Virginia or the violent tragedy on the other side of the world.
I get up, hug Dunder, and then brew my first of the six cups of coffee I’ll have by the end of these 24 hours. A minute after, “This Just In”: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to President Trump requesting he move the date of the State of the Union or do it in writing.
This is it: the one and only development regarding the shutdown that’ll happen in the 24 hours of me watching CNN.
Starting now, nearly every new show begins with “Breaking News,” then shows a clip of the explosion’s fire engulfing Syrians and four American servicemembers, then a clip of Senator Lindsey Graham solemnly testifying that Trump’s plan to rapidly withdraw US troops from Syria will leave a chaotic power vacuum, then a clip of Vice President Mike Pence saying this very morning that “The caliphate has crumbled. ISIS has been defeated” (despite this morning’s attack)—all followed by pundits and correspondents speculating whether or not Trump should go forward with the plan to withdraw.
The 24-hour news cycle has origins in the telegraph. The first ever telegraph was a Bible passage sent from DC to Baltimore in 1844 that read, “What hath God wrought?” The second was, “Have you any news?” 175 years later, CNN greets us with brass, flashing lights, and news of death or impending crisis reminding us of the fragility of life. What hath God wrought? CNN reviews what has happened, adds new details if they exist—Have you any news?—then tell us to stay tuned and, with them, wait for the next telegraph.
I find myself lying on the floor, bored, jittery from my second cup of coffee and lack of breakfast, the light hurting my eyes.
I retrieve Dunder’s leash, put it down somewhere, forget where I put it, find it, repeat that process one more time, and then bring him outside where the fresh air is amazing and the melting snow a wonderfully pleasant sight.
“Surreal: Moscow defends the US President against ‘attacks’” reads the banner box.
Dunder barks at nothing.
CNN host Jake Tapper opens with, “The State of our Union is that we don’t even know if we’ll have a State of the Union.”
The banner box reads “It Gets Worse.” A correspondent discusses the economic impact of the shutdown. “This will not be a slowburn.” There’s an “economic cliff coming.” Will the government shutdown end in time? We still don’t know.
One panelist notes that the newest development is that nothing has developed, meaning that since Pelosi sent the letter to Trump at around 9:30am, he has not responded.
“He could tweet at any time.” “We’ll see if he tweets about it.”
L. requests I watch CNN with headphones, but I can’t find any except for a black workout headband that has headphones inside of them. I look and feel ridiculous, but then again, it feels suited for buckling down for another 14 hours of CNN. I realize that I’m not even halfway through.
My left eye is twitching.
I take Dunder outside to pee.
I return to Rudy Giuliani flipping the fuck out, even by his usual standard. He and CNN host Chris Cuomo are going at it over if Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. Both men’s eyebrows and eyes are moving wildly. Cuomo interjects and pushes: “I just want the truth.” Rudy sputters and basically admits that the Trump campaign might have colluded, but not Trump himself.
This is the first major news development I’ve seen since Pelosi’s letter to Trump. Giuliani’s interview and Mueller’s Russia investigation take over the news cycle.
There’s a difference between the narrative here and the story. A story is a sequence of events, whereas narrative is how we tell a story. Giuliani is out again trying to change the narrative. Since 2016, it’s felt like reality has been splintering. Between news, the idea of “fake news” and the everyday, so many of the stories we tell and the narratives we follow vary and differ wildly. For three years now, we’ve been living suspended in the middle of Mueller’s Russia-Trump investigation, waiting to learn what the story will be, already forming narratives around it.
With 11 hours to go, I’m exhausted and my mind is fried. I know my story will end at 8:00 am the next morning, with me walking Dunder and then going directly to sleep, but I have no clue what the narrative is here yet. I feel numb and everything I’ve watched feels like so much, a barreling stream of anything and everything, an endless nothing.
I say goodnight to L. and Dunder.
Don Lemon: “Rudy Giuliani out-Giuliani’ed himself.”
Lemon hosts a panel to speculate what Giuliani’s intentions were, because he’s done this before: leaked information in an “oops” moment to establish a new narrative and, as the CNN correspondents keep saying, “move the goalposts.” Lemon says, “And that’s what we’re talking about, the craziness he says.”
11:48 pm: This is the most enjoyable segment yet. It’s Don Lemon interviewing Spike Lee about a music video he directed for the Killer’s “Land of the Free,” a protest song that touches on many of America’s problems: racism, xenophobia, incarceration, guns, the border wall. Spike Lee chose to focus the entire video on families and children attempting to emigrate at the southern border.
Spike Lee brings actual analysis and reflection to CNN. He says, “I’m a storyteller and history shows that if it’s good, it’ll last forever.”
His comments and his video touch on the cultural narrative on which our country relies. The song begins with an archetypal story of the American Dream—a family immigrating to Pennsylvania and mining coal—the simple narrative that if you come to this country and work hard, you can find a good, better life. “That’s a false narrative,” Spike Lee says, noting how often it’s left out that our founding fathers built this country on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. Lee’s video emphasizes a more chilling, but truthful, narrative we’ve ignored too often and for too long.
Thursday, January 16th, 12:00 am:
It’s Day 27 of the shutdown and for the next four hours, CNN will replay the evening shows. I stay up, frankly, to finish the story, to watch 24 hours of CNN from beginning to end. I also stay up for the narrative, wondering if one man will also be up at 3 am or 4 am and tweet something that changes it.
I stand up and dance around my living room. Nothing at all has happened, but at any minute right now, that tweet could happen.
I feel quite frail and weirdly disappointed over the lack of tweeting. It’s been an especially quiet 24 hours for the president, who only tweeted twice when he usually tweets 11 to 12 times a day. It makes me feel useless and all this more futile. That tweet—the result of stewing for hours upon hours over Pelosi’s power move—was supposed to make both the news cycle and the shutdown move forward, but, when I’d normally be waking up and getting in the shower before work, I’m still on the couch waiting and hearing nothing.
I bring my laptop to the kitchen and watch CNN while I pack lunch for L. Hosts Alisyn Camerota and John Berman are back for another episode of New Day, cycling through the same subject matters as yesterday.
I hug L. Dunder and I again say goodbye to her. She goes to work.
A segment titled, “CNN Reality Check” plays. The reality being checked is this: Will a continuous border wall stop drugs from coming into the US? The facts point to no—more Americans die from opioids produced legally and domestically than illegal drugs smuggled into the country, usually through ports of entry.
Camerota says that we’re going to have to keep doing that reality check until people stop repeating this xenophobic narrative. Bergman says, “Well it’s everyday. It’s everyday.” The correspondent closes out: “Keep hitting repeat on it.”
What narrative will prevail?
This story is coming to an end and my reality is that the sun has risen, and, I can’t explain it any other way, but my eyes feel ten feet away from my brain. What I see is distant and blurry and it registers with little meaning. I’m searching for a narrative, but my thoughts feel nihilistic.
Do I argue that we need to go back to the old days when the news was an occasion, a time when having a daily newspaper and evening news hour gave us the rest of the day to not only reflect on the news, but focus on what’s immediately around us? Do I focus on how having a 24-hour news cycle makes our lives seem so much more busier than they are? It seems that it’d be nice if for the first time in a while we could have a finished story to reflect on, think long about, and then form narratives around. The government shutdown is a crisis that’s both boring and dreadful to live, and most of us want it to be over, for the story to move on and to go back to work.
“When we say it’s happening right now, it’s happening right now.”
8:01 am: I take Dunder out for a walk. The tailpipes of cars, parked and pulling out, exhaust fumes. They go to work. I circle the block. I sleep.
At 6:07 pm that night, I get a Facebook notification on my phone. A coworker posts in our work group on Facebook, “Back to work! WooHoo!” The State Department has cobbled together enough money to reopen for one pay period, but only one. Since then, Trump, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, and Pelosi have been at least putting on the show of engaging in negotiations by offering, but turning down, compromises. We’ll all stay tuned.
Featured photo by Gavin Whitner.