Thursday, November 4, 2004

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The social construction of television punditry

Virginia Postrel has two good posts up riffing on Fareed Zakaria's column bemoaning the Crossfiring of American politics. Zakaria's key point:

"Crossfire" is now a metaphor for politics in Washington. There are two teams, each with its own politicians, think tanks, special-interest groups, media outfits and TV personalities. The requirement of this world is that you must always be reliably left or right. If you are an analyst "on the right" you must always support what the team does. If President Bush invades Iraq, you support it. If he increases the deficit, you support that. If he opposes stem-cell research, you support that, too. There's no ideological coherence or consistency to these positions. Republicans are now fervent nation-builders, but only two years ago scornfully opposed the whole concept. You must support your team. If you don't, it screws up the TV show.

Postrel argues that Zakaria's thesis stops at the edge of the TV screen:

In reality, Washington's "right-wing" think tanks offer plenty of intellectual diversity (including a range of intellectual quality and integrity, sometimes within the same organization). You just won't see that diversity reflected in television bookings. There, as in party politics, the goal is predictability and message discipline. The lack of "honest debate" and "bipartisanship" isn't a bug; it's a feature. And it will remain a feature until a political crisis sends one or both parties looking for policy entrepreneurs or until media patrons decide that intellectual exploration and genuine debate are more interesting than talking points. In the meantime, the long-term debate will take place offstage.

However, Zakaria's hypothesis does seem to hold for television, as this e-mail missive to Postrel points out:

Fareed is right about the media pressure for guests to be partisan team players. I just got canceled out of what would have been one of my highest-prestige TV bookings ever because (they told me) top producers had decided I was not firmly enough committed to either side in the election.

My experience with the TV thing is that bookers tend to go with a two-person or three-person format when discussing anything of substance. In the two-person format, it's necessary that the commentators take clear positions on clear sides of the partisan fence. In three-person formats, the third person is allowed to be an "expert" or "referee" that's somehow above the fray.

Either way, you're confined to a stereotype.

posted by Dan on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM


I agree with Zakaria. It's awful. And he doesn't mention the fact that there is absolutley no requirement that the "pundits" actually know anything about the topic at hand.

So you have dedicated and ignorant partisans yelling talking points at each other, with moderators who are equally partisan and uninformed. This passes for debate.

posted by: Bernard Yomtov on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

Is Robert Novak always a George Bush Republican team player? Is Pat Buchanan? Tucker Carlson?

Not the last time I checked.

posted by: David on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

Zakaria is right, and not just about what's on television panel shows. Television interviews of elected officials are usually this way as well; the media demand it, and the respective campaigns demand it.

If news is entertainment, the audience has to be able to follow the story line. If you have someone like Richard Lugar -- who is indisputably a Bush supporter -- go on the tube with criticism of some aspect of Iraq policy it just confuses the story line. Think of the closest analog to the political panel shows, WWE wrestling. Matches have to have a face and a heel; in talk shows the audience can divide on which panelist is which, but the same dynamic applies. The WWE often mixes up its story lines -- faces turn heel and vice versa -- and political shows can't do that, but otherwise it's the same kind of thing.

As for Virginia's friends at the think tanks, well, who cares how diverse and respectable they are? They are not entertaining.

posted by: Zathras on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

Zakaria wrote a column on John Stewart? Anyway, isn't "message dicipline" part of the problem. Why should the goal on TV be message discipline? Unless you want to say "I am an utter hack who should be scorned from society for my complete lack of integrity". Postrel doesn't really make an argument, she asserts. She might be right, but she isn't convincing. And the diversity is rather useless if people refuse to discuss these issues with the American people.

posted by: Jor on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

Lots of truth in what both Zakaria and Postrel have posted. Is there anything which doesn't get seriously distorted by the entertainment focus which is behind all TV? The WWF analogy if very apt. If I didn't happen to actually KNOW lots of liberals from my church I might think they were all jerks like Paul Begala; and they might well equate me with (Rush, O'Reilly - fill in the blank).

Somewhat unrelated, but I've always hated the way networks turn their coverage of the Olympics into a set of melodramas about specific individual athletes. Just show me the events, dammit.

posted by: Hunter McDaniel on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

The real problem is that most Americans don't know that there are these distinctions within the Democrat and Republican camps. They don't know of Drezner, Fukuyama or the Economist's endorsements of Kerry, or of Will's or Brooks's reservations concerning Bush. I don't care about the partisan b****-fests on TV, but the oversimplification that leads to the Bush=Conservative and Kerry=Liberal (with no in-between) positions is harmful.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

Anybody have any ideas on what to do about this? Shows are like this because they sell. I don't know how you change the market preference for partisan hackery without some wholesale mass education of the public, and nobody with the resources to do that has the inclination because the electorate is more easily manipulated the way it is now.

posted by: fling93 on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

Hunter - "Just show me the events, dammit." I agree. During the World Series I kept wishing that it was being carried on C-Span. We missed a Bellhorn hit in order to watch Fox interview a guy who is famous for being in a (tasteless) Fox tv commercial. (I know this is slightly off topic, but as Dan is a Red Sox fan I'm sure this ticked him off, too.)

posted by: DirtDog on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

I'd have to say that the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is consistently surprising on this score. They slip up occasionally, but they usually find informed commentators, rather than partisan spin-doctors. They rarely invite politicians, and the journalists and academics they bring on the show generally keep their political views fairly modestly veiled. It seems to me they may have changed their guest invitation policies back in 2001 after too many Israeli and Palestinian officials ended up in shouting matches.

My only consistent objection to the NewsHour is its slavish dependence on the NYT (and Boston Globe).

posted by: Joel on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

It's not entirely fair, I don't think, to cast the aspersions directly at TV or other media punditry without pointing out that the "both sides must be represented" is in large part a result of intense pressure from both sides on the media to make sure that their sides are represented. The media, which is fundamentally scared of publicity shining on itself (think about it), has responded by making sure that both sides are represented and being cautious of using people who don't clearly represent a side, so they don't get blindsided by the supposedly unrepresented side complaining about bias.

posted by: Jonathan Dresner on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

What I probably hate most is when they bring in some Democratic or Republican hack to talk about something about which they have no knowledge aside from the talking points that have been handed to them by their party.

For instance, Rudy Giuliani spinning Al Qaqaa. What the eff did he know about it? Find somebody who knows what they're talking about and can speak from personal experience.

posted by: praktike on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

It surprises me that someone as starkly pro-Bush as Postrel isn't "committed" enough to go on TV.

posted by: flaime on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

Here's another anecdote for you. I recently had the chance to talk to John Avlon, author of the book Independent Nation, and former head speech writer for Rudy Guiliani. He currently writes a column for the New York Sun from a centrist perspective.

Recently, he's been talking to producers of various political shows and trying to convince them to include someone from other than a liberal or conservative point of view in their panels and discussions. He's had some success, apparently, but the first reaction he gets from people is "hey, I've got a split screen here -- one guy on the left, and one on the right -- so where do I put you?"

posted by: William Swann on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

Someone mentioned The News Hour as an example of high quality commentary. I would also suggest the Charlie Rose Show. He avoids the kind of sterile partisan rhetoric, asks tough but fair questions and really tries to engage his listeners. The problem with both of these shows is that they are on PBS, which attracts relativele few viewers. Mainstream channels like CNN are looking for controversy to attract viewers and shows like Crossfire get all the attention.

At one time in this country, people had a committment to reasonable, non-shouting debate, in part because we were taught to be polite and civil. IN the same way that we were taught that you didn't showboat after touchdowns, home runs, etc. These standards no longer exist. Civility and politeness are things from another era. From what I am reading on blogs, there are large numbers of people (on both left and right) that think civility is a joke and believe that the only way to debate or discuss issues is to try to crush the opposition. Viewers are drawn to verbal combat because it's more interesting and requires less thought than having to digest boring complexity.

posted by: MWS on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

The NewsHour does do a reasonably good job at choosing moderate partisans, but it is still usually (though not always) stuck in the structural position of one "pro", one "con", and possibly one neutral.

This is part of the tyranny of balance that the media forces on itself.

Being a locally elected official who is asked from time to time to engage in these kinds of interactions, I prefer and usually ask that both sides be given an amount of time alone not in opposition, hopefully significant, to cover the topic.

Once this is done, then I think its just fine to sit the two down with each other. But the food fight forum, always forces each to sell to win rather than to discuss, and to simplify rather than explain.

I read somewhere that the debate forum between Lincoln and Douglas gave each man an hour or so to speak alone, and a similar amount of time to rebut.

Finally, do you really think that most viewers want to listen to four hours of technical policy? The truth is that politics is a form of entertainment, and politicians and the media have both adapted to provide the most competitive entertainment forum. Voters do still get what they deserve.

Menlo Park, CA

posted by: panu on 11.04.04 at 03:33 PM [permalink]

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