Television, by its very nature, is like any of us: It wants a story to hew to a basic outline of sense. Sense is the only way for words and pictures to line up; there's a process to it, between the street and the control room and the anchor, and a belief that even the most complicated events can be shaped into a live narrative, something a viewer can follow.
Then there are those times — rare, we can all hope and pray — when sense gives way to televised chaos.
Watching as the participants of a peacefully ongoing protest near Washington, D.C.'s Lafayette Square ran from tear gas Monday evening, so that, as the clouds dissipated, President Donald Trump could stride out of the White House to brandish a Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal Church — it was a TV moment that will linger forever, awfully, in our shared history. ("Is it your Bible?" a reporter shouted; "It is a Bible," the president appeared to reply.)
There was the chilling possibility that you were watching another large chunk of your country — and your freedom — fall away. It was a draining spectacle, and to their credit, nearly every news channel (save for you-know-who) deemed it to be a callous photo op.
And yet, after Trump and his gang turned and walked back to the White House, there was still more news to watch unfurl. What power is the president asserting? Anchors called out to their on-scene reporters on 16th Street Northwest, on Eye Street, at Farragut Square: What are you seeing? What is happening?
What is happening, what is happening, what is happening.
Raise your hand if you wish you knew. "There is no single image, or clip, or quote that can capture everything going down right now," MSNBC host Ari Melber told his viewers.
Broadcast news is particularly dependent on sense-making, which has been nearly impossible to do in the flammable days and nights since George Floyd suffocated underneath Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's knee on May 25, while other officers failed to intervene.
A week later, midday on Monday, TV news outlets had at least figured out a rhythm, in lieu of sense. The Floyd story, and the ensuing outrage that brings people across the country out to protest and riot and loot, started to ebb and flow into formats that are at least as recognizable as the sun in the sky: Daytime TV looks dramatically different from what we witness and fear in the intensity of the night.
Monday afternoon brought the kind of sad, yet hopeful story that TV was made to cover, live, as Terrence Floyd visited the Minneapolis street where his brother died. Using a megaphone, he pleaded with protesters to express their anger through peaceable means.
"If I'm not out here wilding out, if I'm not out here blowing stuff up, if I'm not out here messing up my community, then what are y'all doing?" Terrence Floyd asked, then encouraged the protesters to vote ("Not just for the president, for the preliminary — vote for everybody") and to not let what happened to George fade away. "Keep my brother's name ringing!"
This moment was most movingly covered by CNN correspondent Sara Sidner, who, a day earlier, had acted as an impromptu, on-air go-between, approaching Minneapolis's chief of police to ask him to talk to the Floyd family while they happened to be appearing on CNN via remote feed.
In these daytime cycles of the Floyd story, the coverage conveys the idea that we all want the same outcome. Even Fox News, which in the afternoon tends to shift quietly into a lighter and briefly evenhanded version of itself, expresses a general solidarity with the protesters' demands for justice. This is how you get a professor of African American studies, on CNN, and the likes of GOP operative Karl Rove, on Fox, to appear to be arriving at the same sense of it all.
Then there is early-evening television, a time period that was for decades regarded as the news hour, which in recent weeks and months became the hour in which Trump filled his ridiculous need for attention with daily news conferences during the country's struggle to fend off the covid-19 pandemic.
On any halfway regular night, the early evening is a good place to get a sense from the nightly news of what happened in the previous 24 hours with the Floyd-related unrest in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Washington, Atlanta, Louisville, Brooklyn, Seattle — wherever and all over. Nobody does omniscience like the broadcast network news, where anything short of nuclear war can be hammered into a calm recap.
The president claimed that time period on Monday for himself, however, first with a curt address in the White House Rose Garden, with only a trace of the nominally supportive words he should have delivered sooner, dunked in a heavy sauce of militaristic belligerence; followed not long afterward by his surreal trek across the forcibly cleared, perceived battleground of H Street.
Then comes the night. The past several nights have been the strangest and worst part of watching TV's coverage of all this; it's where you get the stomach-turning sense of paranoia, the glimpses of anarchy-in-motion, the murky intel from Twitter that not everyone out there is who they seem to be. The pundits swoop in — such as they can, via Zoom and other communication apps — to confer with Chris Cuomo and Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson, in acts of violent agreement, depending on the viewpoint.
The night is when one's local TV news becomes essential watching. On Monday, as the sun was setting, Washington's WUSA was interrupting CBS's prime-time fare to keep covering the aftermath of the day's protests and counteroffensive. The city's 7 p.m. curfew had started, and local news was showing us the ensuing arrests, as D.C. police rounded up several protesters.
A WUSA reporter stopped to interview a protester, a young woman lying flat on the sidewalk at 16th and L Streets Northwest, looking up at the sky. The woman was wearing denim shorts, a white shirt, and a blue protective mask over her mouth and nose. She wasn't being arrested, but she had surrendered to something larger. The golden-hour light enhanced the dreamlike quality of the moment; the reporter asked the woman if she was OK, and why was she lying in the sidewalk.
Yes, the woman replied, she was fine. She just needed to stop and lie down and wait for the next to thing to happen. She said she was tired of her people dying. Others standing nearby told the reporter to leave the woman alone.
As the night wore on, a viewer could turn the TV coverage off and still feel the chaos thrumming inside one's head.
And thrumming outside, too, depending on where you live. Saturday night, I stood on the balcony and watched the streets fill with protesters headed east of downtown, followed by officers in protective gear; the flicker of blue and red emergency lights bounced off the walls almost until dawn. Sunday night there was an explosion loud enough to give the windows a shake, coming from the direction of the Washington Convention Center. One turns into one's own correspondent, searching Twitter for an explanation that never quite comes.
Monday night, and into the early hours Tuesday, the rafters shook from endless, looping, low-flying helicopters.
For some time now, we've been saying that our country has become a TV show. Some say reality show, some say dystopian drama. Many of us made the mistake of thinking it was a different kind of show, mainly about politics, and that we were only a season or two into it.
It's becoming clearer all the time what the show was always about: unresolved and barely mitigated cruelty, injustice and hate. It's been on for 400 years.
Hank Stuever has been The Washington Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a reporter for the Style section, where he covered popular culture.