Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fixing the Sunday Shows

A great idea from journalism professor Jay Rosen:

Look, the Sunday morning talk shows are broken. As works of journalism they don't work. And I don't know why this is so hard for the producers to figure out.

The people who host and supervise these shows, the journalists who appear on them, as well as the politicians who are interviewed each week, are all quite aware that extreme polarization and hyper-partisan conflict have come to characterize official Washington, an observation repeated hundreds of times a month by elders in the Church of the Savvy. Ron Brownstein wrote a whole book on it: The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America

If the observation is true, then inviting partisans on television to polarize us some more would seem to be an obvious loser, especially because the limited airtime compresses political speech and guarantees a struggle for the microphone. This pattern tends to strand viewers in the senseless middle. We either don't know whom to believe, and feel helpless. Or we curse both sides for their distortions. Or we know enough to know who is bullshitting us more and wonder why the host doesn't. I can think of no scenario in which Brownstein can be correct and the Sunday shows won't suck. (Can you?)

It's remarkable to me how unaware someone like David Gregory appears to be about all this. He acts as if lending stage to extreme partisanship, and then "confronting" each side with one or two facts it would prefer to forget, is a perfectly fine solution. But then he also acts like his pathetic denialism about the adequacy of press performance as Bush made his case for war is sustainable, normal, rational. ("I think the questions were asked. I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president.") Maybe he thinks we buy that. Or forgive him. Or something....

Well, Gregory is a special case. But in fact the whole Sunday format has to be re-thought, or junked so the news divisions can start over with a new premise. Of course the problem is that the people who would have to make that decision are the same people whose entire knowledge base and skill set lies in producing the "old" style of political television. That is what they know, so that is what they continue to do. I guess it's not hard to understand complacency of this kind. But do they really think we don't notice the growing absurdity of bringing to a common table people who agree on nothing?

I think the situation calls for cynicism. But I have to admit that is not much of a call. So instead I propose this modest little fix, first floated on Twitter in a post I sent out to Betsy Fischer, Executive Producer of Meet the Press, who never replies to anything I say. "Sadly, you're a one-way medium," I said to Fischer, "but here's an idea for ya: Fact check what your guests say on Sunday and run it online Wednesday."

Now I don't contend this would solve the problem of the Sunday shows, which is structural. But it might change the dynamic a little bit. Whoever was bullshitting us more could expect to hear about it from Meet the Press staff on Wednesday. The midweek fact check (in the spirit of, which could even be hired for the job...) might, over time, exert some influence on the speakers on Sunday. At the very least, it would guide the producers in their decisions about whom to invite back.

The midweek fact check would also give David Gregory a way out of his puppy game of gotcha. Instead of telling David Axelrod that his boss promised to change the tone in Washington so why aren't there any Republican votes for health care? ... which he thinks is getting "tough" with a guest, Gregory's job would simply be to ask the sort of questions, the answers to which could be fact checked later in the week. Easy, right?

The beauty of this idea is that it turns the biggest weakness of political television--the fact that time is expensive, and so complicated distortions, or simple distortions about complicated matters, are rational tactics for advantage-seeking pols---into a kind of strength. The format beckons them to evade, deny, elide, demagogue and confuse.... but then they pay for it later if they give into temptation and make that choice. So imagine the midweek fact check from last week as a short segment wrapping up the show the following week. Now you have an incentive system that's at least pointed in the right direction.

No comments:

Post a Comment