Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sunday Morning Journamalism

CNN's Sunday show, "State of the Union," is touting its line-up for tomorrow's episode.

This week, [host John King's] exclusive guests are Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) LIVE from Jerusalem. We'll get their insight on the foiled airline terror plot and President Obama's strategy on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Hmm, McCain and Lieberman, talking together about foreign policy and national security. Now that's a balanced pairing.

But just as important, note that we haven't quite reached the first anniversary of President Obama's inauguration, and John McCain is on yet another Sunday morning talk show. And you know what that means -- it's time to update the big board.

This will be John McCain's 18th appearance on a Sunday morning talk show since Obama took office12 months ago. That's an average of one appearance every 2.9 weeks for a year -- more than any other public official in the country.

Since the president's inauguration, McCain has been on "Meet the Press" three times (December 6, July 12, and March 29), "This Week" three times (September 27, August 23, and May 10), "Face the Nation" four times (October 25, August 30, April 26, and February 8), and "Fox News Sunday" four times (December 20, July 2, March 8, and January 25). His appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" tomorrow will be his fourth (January 10, October 11, August 2, and February 15).

And who, exactly, is John McCain? He's the one who lost the 2008 presidential race badly, and is now just another reactionary conservative senator in the minority. He's not in the party leadership; he has no role in any important negotiations on any issue; and he's offered no significant pieces of legislation. By all appearances, McCain isn't even especially influential among his own GOP colleagues.

There's just no reason for the media's obsession with McCain. None. Eighteen Sunday-show appearances in 12 months? It's farcical.

Post Script: And reinforcing Jay Rosen's observation that "the Sunday morning talk shows are broken," it's also worth noting that Liz Cheney will be on ABC's "This Week" and CNN's "State of the Union" tomorrow, despite the fact that she's breathtakingly dishonest and has nothing to add to the public discourse.

Jay Rosen (Columbia School of Journalism): My Simple Fix for the Messed Up Sunday Shows

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.

As I said, the situation calls for cynicism, which is the real product of the Sunday shows. But simply because nothing will be done, we shouldn't pretend that nothing can be done. That would be cynicism taken to an unwarranted extreme.

Soon, This Week with George Stephanopoulos on ABC will get a new host, which is likely to be White House correspondent Jake Tapper. He could institute the midweek fact check in a stroke. And he has the ego to think he could pull it off. Stroke, ego-- hey, maybe we got something here. How 'bout it, Jake?


On CNN's Reliable Sources, Jan. 3, 2010, Howard Kurtz responded to a witless crack NBC's Brian Williams made about Twitter ("I see it as kind of a time suck that I don't need any more of. Just too much 'I got the most awesome new pair of sweatpants...'") by informing Williams that a journalist can find many useful ideas there. And then he endorsed my simple fix for the Sunday shows, showed my original Twitter post on the air and quoted from this piece. From the transcript:

Still to come, trashing Twitter. Brian Williams thinks all of those short messages are a waste of time. We'll show you why he's -- what's the word? -- wrong.


KURTZ: Brian Williams is a talented anchor and pretty good comedian. But when it comes to Twitter, well, let's just say he's a tad out of touch.

The NBC newsman tells "TIME" magazine that, "I see it as a kind of time suck that I don't need anymore of. Just too much 'I got the most awesome new pair of sweatpants.'"

Now, I learn smart things from smart people on Twitter every day that have nothing to do with what pants people are wearing or not wearing. Here's just one example.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted an idea about improving the Sunday morning talk shows. He says the programs, rather than letting politicians get away with distortions, should offer an online fact check each week of exaggerations and lies. For the guests, says Rosen, 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. I happen to think that makes a lot of sense toward holding officials accountable.

What do you think, Brian? Oh, you didn't catch that on Twitter? Pity.

Can't say that's ever happened to me before.

ABC's Jake Tapper replies to this post on Twitter: "Interesting, thanks."

Jason Linkins comments at Huffington Post with a suggested improvement:

Naked assertions from politicians are the stuff of these shows. Why can't some of them be checked in real time? Surely it's possible to have a small army of fact-checkers at the ready during the broadcasts of these shows. Network news divisions already employ reporters and researchers (all of whom are likely passively watching their network's program anyway) who can be deployed to assist the overall journalistic enterprise. Moreover, I'm reliably informed that technology now allows for people to send "instant messages" to one another. Why not use it? Why not open up these lines of communication between the backroom and the moderator, and bring the full force of a news gathering organization to bear as the cameras roll live?

There's no doubt it could be done. However, my purpose in making this "modest little suggestion" was to float something both sensible and easily done, something that wouldn't even require a change in the show.

Jay Rosen: "This is part of what's so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog realism to itself."

As those who follow me on Twitter know, I've been keeping a public notebook on "the church of the savvy," which is my name for the belief system that binds together our political press corps in Washington. Though they see themselves as the opposite of ideological, the people in the national press actually share an ideology: the religion of savviness. Since it differs from both liberal ideology and conservative ideology and from political thought itself, savviness often eludes description, or even recognition as a set of beliefs. That's why I keep my running notebook. I'm trying to teach readers how to "see" the savvy.

In a PressThink post a few years ago, I defined it this way:

Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in— their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.

Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.

To the people inside it, savviness is not a cult. It is not a professional church or "belief system." It's not really an object fit for contemplation at all. But they would say that political journalists need to be savvy observers because in politics the unsavvy are hapless, clueless, deluded, clownish, or in some cases extreme. They get run over: easily. They get disappointed: needlessly. They get angry--fruitlessly--because they don't know how things work in practical terms.

The savvy do know how things work inside the game of politics, and it is this knowledge they try to wield in argument.... instead of argument. In this sense savviness as the church practices it is the exemption from the political that believers think will come to them because they are journalists striving only to report on politics or conduct analysis, not to "win" within the contest as it stands.

Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passon, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. As I wrote on Twitter the other day, "the savvy don't say: I have a better argument than you... They say: I am closer to reality than you. And more mature."

Now in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his or her observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sghted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy. This is part of what's so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog realism to itself.

For example, Peter Baker of the New York Times is an excellent represenative of the church and its teachings. This weekend he published a "news analysis" of Obama's ambiguous accomplishments on climate change at Copenhagen and health care reform in the Congress. Wherein we find this:

Neither deal represented a final victory, and in fact some on the left in his own party argued that both of them amounted to sellouts on principle in favor of expediency. But both agreements served the purpose of keeping the process moving forward, inching ever closer toward Mr. Obama’s goals and providing a jolt of adrenaline for a White House eager to validate its first year in office.

Did you catch it? Opposition from the left isn't presented as an argument about what will actually change the health care system, and Baker's dismissal of it doesn't reflect his disagreement with the left about what will actually change the health care system. The exemption from the poliitcal is operating. The left wanted Obama to "stick to principle," but the realty is Obama is moving closer to his goals. The savvy see that; the people shouting "sell out" do not. Let's watch that move again. Baker:

[Obama] may not get the health care plan he envisioned but, if the legislation passes, he will insure 30 million more people, stop insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and at least try to rein in costs. He will not end climate change in his presidency, and may not get the market-based emission caps he wants, but he may move the country, and the world, toward meaningful action.

Of course, to many on both sides of the aisle, there is a less sympathetic narrative. To the left, Mr. Obama seems increasingly to lack the fire to fight on matters of principle. To the right, he appears to be overreaching, saddling the country with debt and the weight of a bloated and overly intrusive government.

To the savvy, the center is a holy place: political grace resides there. The profane is the ideological extremes. The adults converse in the pragmatic middle ground where insiders cut their deals. On the wings are the playgrounds for children. But to argue directly for these propositions is out of the question: political reporters don't conduct arguments, they tell us what's happening! Instead an argument is made by positioning the players a certain way while reporting the news and doing "analysis." Obama is getting things done; critics are scoring ideological points (big government!) or standing on principle. Peter Baker isn't an Obama supporter. But he welcomes presidents to his church.

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