Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

By George, what a row

Treat CNN commentator's baby talk as time-filling nonsense

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The chronicle of the royal family used to be part of the historical record. These days it's just another form of celebrity gossip.

But it's celebrity gossip determined to keep up its pedigree, generally taking a dignified, network-news approach to the House of Windsor, sometimes adding the high gloss of "constitutional significance." Commentators are usually polite, even posh.

Sure, things can get messy. (Oh, those younger sons and Nazi uniforms!) But there's an inclination to keep up the tone and tamp down the controversy, especially when it comes to royal life-cycle events. Even virulent anti-monarchists tend to go easy on the occasion of a regal birth. A baby is a baby, after all, and any talk of the royals as irrelevant, wasteful or representative of a hidebound class system can surely be sorted out later.

Amid all this garden-party decorum, it was fun to watch the social-media scrap that resulted over a stray comment by Victoria Arbiter, CNN's royal correspondent. An Englishwoman based in New York, Arbiter sent congrats to the Duchess of Cambridge, saying "how brilliant a royal Kate is" for delivering a baby boy.

After blithely raising the historical spectres of disgrace, divorce and beheading for queens who couldn't muster a male heir, Arbiter went on: "Kate did it first time."

Critics pounced on her as anti-girl. They denounced Arbiter's shaky grasp of math -- with a roughly 50-50 chance of a boy, this "achievement" isn't exactly unprecedented. And they went after her Henry VIII-like understanding of biology -- it was actually William's chromosomes that determined the baby's gender, even if Kate did the hard labour.

Arbiter seemed flummoxed by the controversy.

Partly, I think, media people were just relieved to have something to grab onto, after being driven into a tizzy of inane time-filling while waiting for reports of the royal infant. For journalists actually on the scene, the boredom of standing around staring at a pair of closed doors had driven them a bit nutty. (One reporter said that veterans of the so-called Great Kate Wait were "starting to sound like guys who've been in 'Nam too long.") The Internet commentators were getting desperate, too.

Arbiter -- who is on record as supporting the new gender-neutral laws of succession that mean that either a boy or a girl would have been equally in line for the throne -- gamely took on her detractors. She claimed that they had missed the irony, tweeting that it's "a Brit thing, lost in translation."

"You are obviously not well versed in the British use of brilliant and our tongue-in-cheek approach," she wrote to one. And it's true that in England the word "brilliant" doesn't mean super-smart. In fact, The Urban Dictionary defines brilliant as "a term the British use to describe everything." Everything!

Arbiter's claim for irony is harder to accept. Christopher Hitchens she ain't. In her bubbly CNN appearance, Arbiter doesn't seem remotely ironic. If her breathlessly earnest coverage of the royal wedding is anything to go by, she is perhaps the least ironic English person alive. She has taken to enthusiastic American gushing like a swan to water.

Arbiter's real talent is being able to elegantly stretch out a whole lot of nothing, padding a scarcity of hard information by saying things like "if indeed it did happen, it would make sense." She's the kind of commentator we're bound to end up with when royal coverage meets the 24-hour news cycle.

She's mostly blandly competent, except for this mesmerizing slip about Kate's miraculous boy-producing powers. After Arbiter's 36-second clip went viral, a Slate magazine headline queried: "Did CNN Just Lock Up the Award For Worst Royal Baby Commentary?"

Actually, I prefer Arbiter when she's screwing up. At least she gave us all something to talk about.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 D12

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