On Cable News

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

…it’s my impression that much of cable news is rigged. Complicated questions are forced into small spaces of time, and guests frequently dissemble in order to score debate points and avoid being intellectually honest. Finally, many of the guests don’t seem to be actual experts in the field of which they’re addressing, so much as they’re “strategists” or “analysts.” I strongly suspect that part of the reason this is the case is talking on TV is, itself, a craft and one that requires a skill-set very different than what is required of academics.  I’m sure many academics themselves share the disdain for the format that I’ve outlined.

I’ve posted on this before. I feel the same way. I have to do cable news because it’s part of my job. But it’s often really frustrating. Especially as a libertarian. We hold positions with which most people aren’t immediately familiar. They’re also a bit more nuanced than, say, responding to any story in the news with racial overtones by noting that Robert Byrd was once in the Ku Klux Klan. A couple of anecdotes I’ve previously written about come to mind. There’s this one:

A couple of years ago, I had a telling IM exchange with an aspiring young conservative pundit. (I like the guy personally, so I’m not going to mention his name.) He had just gone on a cable network and said some things about an issue in the news that were completely wrong. So I sent him some links that showed why he was wrong. He thanked me and replied, “One of the really hard things about being a journalist is going on TV to talk about things you’re not really read up on.”

Well, no. That’s one of the “really hard” things about being a hack. I really loathe this about cable news. They bring in the same personalities to talk what’s going on in the news. It doesn’t matter if those personalities have the slightest idea what they’re talking about. They’re on TV not because they have specialized knowledge about a given story, but because they’re talented at applying standard partisan talking points to a wide variety of issues. And now, Dick Morris will talk about the Federal Reserve. Joining us to explain what the drug war violence in Mexico means to you, here’s Democratic strategist Bob Beckell.  Their job is to tell the portion of the audience that already agrees with them what the audience already thinks it knows. Everyone is stupider for it.

And this one:

So last week I did a very brief segment on a we’ll-keep-it-unnamed cable news network. While I was chatting with the producer on the phone before the show, she read me the copy they were going use to introduce me to be sure it was correct. It was just a little bit off, so I offered a change in wording, suggesting they use the phrase “Nanny State policies” instead of what she had prepared.

Her response was pretty amusing. It’s from memory, so this isn’t an exact quote. But her response went something like this: “Oh no, we don’t use that word. We’ve found that when we use the word policy our viewers lose interest, because they think something boring is coming. So our anchors never use that word, and we try to tell our guests not to use it either.”

I have one more. Several years ago I was booked to go on a past incarnation of Joe Scarborough’s show to talk about blogging. I recall that this was just after some conservative blogs had managed to get another network news person fired (but it wasn’t Dan Rather). My position, which I clearly articulated to the producer in the pre-interview, was that I thought the blogs were being a bit triumphalist about it all. Blogs were an important and emerging voice, but the traditional media was still important, blogs wouldn’t be replacing them anytime soon, and that was a good thing. When I got on the air, Scarborough went through the rest of the panel (I believe my co-panelists were Hugh Hewitt and Ana Marie Cox). When he came to me he said something like, “So Radley Balko, you think blogs are destroying America?”

I was at Cato at the time. I found out later that the producer actually got angry with Cato’s media rep because I didn’t take the more confrontational position that would have made for better TV. There’s no room for nuance on cable news.

And then there’s what you might call the Wendy Murphy Problem, which is that in the world of cable news things move so fast, the soundbites are so short, the news cycle so ephemeral, that you can pretty much get away with just making shit up. Odds are good that no one who knows better has been paying attention long enough to call you on your errors. And as long as you’re interesting, animated, and provocative, producers aren’t going to stop booking you just because you’re, well, wrong a lot. It’s a gig that rewards shamelessness. (See also this very funny story.)

I think Coates is right that serious thinkers shy away from cable news for these reasons. But I also think most producers don’t want academics and actual experts, for the same reasons. As a TV pundit your objective isn’t to educate, or inform, or even to make an educated argument in favor of your position. Your job is to reinforce what the people watching on your side already believe. People don’t watch cable news to be challenged or to learn. They watch it to get the latest talking points that they can use in their next political argument at the bar, over the water cooler, or at the dinner table. Producers know this. The cable news pundit’s comparative advantage, then, isn’t specialized knowledge. It’s the ability to distill any issue in the news into a pithy argument about why red is better than blue, or left is better than right, or how this is just further proof that the ACLU/NRA wants to eat your baby. I don’t get them as often anymore, but for a while a couple of times each month I’d get a request from cable news producer “looking for someone to come on and argue X.” Not, “We’re looking for someone with some expertise in X.” They already knew the argument they wanted to hear. They just needed a warm body to make it.

Like Coates, my favorite media hits are those that give you half hour or more to talk about an issue in-depth. That’s also why I much prefer radio to TV. (On a side note, TV is also much more difficult. I can do radio in my pajamas. Hell, I don’t even have to wear pants. TV is like playing tennis on roller skates while sipping a martini. You have to be aware of your body language, how animated you look, whether or not you’re smiling (and whether or not that’s appropriate), whether you’re rocking or indulging some other nervous tic, if your jacket is riding up your collar, and so on. What you’re actually saying is only one of about a half dozen things you’re thinking about, usually while sitting in a studio by yourself, staring into a bright light, listening through an earpiece to a host you can’t see. TV hits also take a couple hours out of your day for about five minutes of actual on-air time.)

But back to the original point. I’ll continue to do cable news, if only because I think it’s important to get a libertarian perspective out there on the issues I cover. But I turn down way more requests than I  accept. I won’t go on the air to talk about any issue or story I don’t feel I’m qualified to talk about. And given that cable news isn’t particularly interested in the issues I am qualified to talk about (save for Stossel, Napolitano, and Alyona Minkovsky), I don’t end up doing much TV. I’ve also had producers cancel me because it was pretty clear in pre-interviews that I wasn’t going to take the pre-fab position they wanted me to take.

I don’t mean to blow myself up here. I’m probably every bit as narcissistic as Wendy Murphy, Bob Beckel and the other cable news flacks I’ve slagged. I mean, I’m a blogger for God’s sake. Our marrow churns with vanity. If I could go on TV every night to talk about the issues I think are important, I sure as hell would. And a big reason I won’t go on TV to talk about things I’m not qualified to talk about is that I’m afraid I’ll embarrass myself by saying something that’s factually incorrect, an easy thing to do when you’re basing your arguments not on your own research and reporting but on things you’ve read elsewhere . . . or saw on cable news.

It’s really the noise that I loathe—the fact that you can watch an hour of cable news without learning a damn thing. And save for a few exceptions, noise isn’t just a problem for cable news, it is cable news.

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39 Responses to “On Cable News”

  1. #1 |  Kevin3% | 

    Nicely stated, Radley.

    You highlight a primary reason I don’t watch television and have become loathe to watch any of the stuff that passes for news and commentary. They are pitching to an audience that expects to hear what they think they know.

    “The opinions of 10,000 are meaningless if they are ignorant of the subject”
    Marcus Airelius

  2. #2 |  Rich | 

    Sorry I stopped reading when you used the word policy.

  3. #3 |  Jack | 

    Damn, I was just about to post “too long, did not read” Well played, Rich.

    Nice post Radley. Merry Christmas.

  4. #4 |  Bernard | 

    There’s a related problem that because all political news is churned out this way if you don’t know the formula you think everyone in and around politics thinks in extremely simplistic terms.

    If, on the other hand, you do know the formula then you know that none of what is being said represents the views either of the people themselves or the broad groupings they’re supposed to represent.

    Political broadcasting falls foul of the same problem as reality tv, which is that the producers don’t think the public want reality. They think that the public want the human equivalent of monkeys flinging pooh.

    The producers may well be right. They know their job better than I do, but it certainly doesn’t speak well of the media as a pillar to support participatory democracy.

  5. #5 |  claude | 

    the more cable news i watch, the more i appreciate my shortwave radio. :-|

    happy festivus.

  6. #6 |  Mike H | 

    It’s shocking to hear some of this behind-the-scenes bullshit. What’s not shocking, however, is your refusal to play along.

    Your policy (yep, I said it) is integrity.

  7. #7 |  Pete | 

    I gave up on it long ago, and I forget why. Probably because $4000 set of teeth in a $4000 suit said something so asinine and false, but so glibly… You know. I think my immediate reaction was “that’s not the first time that’s happened, today, and it won’t be the last.”

    And then when you try to tell a diehard conservative that Fox News is full of shit and went to court to defend their right to be full of shit, they basically plug their ears and “nanananana” until you go away. I had a discussion once with an aviation engineer, who subcontracts for Boeing in N Chas, SC, working on the Dreamliner assembly process. Brilliant guy, if he works overtime in a week and happens to pull a double, he gets paid over a THOUSAND DOLLARS for that shift.

    Would not entertain one iota of possibility that Fox News wasn’t telling it absolutely straight. Countered with something like “Look at MSNBC!” and my reaction was “Yeah, let’s! They do most of the same distasteful stuff, only not as blatantly or as often, but they sure as hell add a partisan spin.”

    Guy just wouldn’t hear anything bad about Fox.

  8. #8 |  The Mossy Spaniard | 

    I wake up to CNN, but that’s chiefly because looking at Kiran Chetry is a good way to start a day. I guess cable news was a decent jumping-off point as a college freshman, but then again, I spent a lot of time unlearning that trite garbage.
    The tipping point was probably the ’08 elections. Hating on a sitting president was one thing (and it was probably warranted), but I’ve never seen such a messianic portrait of a candidate as the one painted of Barack Obama by MSNBC.

  9. #9 |  Scott | 

    Great points, and kudos for having a conscience and much more integrity. I realized a decade or so ago that ALL the cable news channels are specious, spurious, and inane, and despite the frothing at the mouth insistence by the left that there is, there’s virtually no difference between Fox and CNN. Thus, I stopped watching ALL of them years ago.

  10. #10 |  Kolohe | 

    The producers may well be right. They know their job better than I do, but it certainly doesn’t speak well of the media as a pillar to support participatory democracy

    I’m inclined to believe the producers are right. CNN International broadcasts something like 50 feet away from the regular CNN feed, (or at least it did 10 years ago) and is on par with the BBC World and Al Jazeera English feeds. CNN regular is getting creamed by both Fox and MSNBC, so there’s definitely an incentive to mix it up. Yet, they play it ‘straight’ enough that I’d bet they’d tank even worse with a totally straight programing line like their international edition. Supporting this is how Headline News went from the TV version of ‘you give us 22 minutes we’ll give you the world’ to ‘all celebreality all the time.’

  11. #11 |  jrb | 

    Nicely written. I think Bad Religion covered this about 18 years ago, but no one but us punks seemed to be listening…

    Only Entertainment
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qicXCoYrtsY

    The whole point of cable news (or any news for that matter) is to sell advertisements. They’ve learned that sensationalism, rather than rational examination of reality, is what brings in the viewers (and readers). With the viewers come the advertising dollars. It’s pretty simple, really. It’s nothing new. It’s been going on for at least a hundred years (remember the Maine?).

  12. #12 |  Mister DNA | 

    Hell, if it meant getting close to Alyona Minkovsky, I’d be willing to go on Russia Today and talk about the local music scene in Burkina Faso, Martian cuisine, the fundamentals of time travel, or any of the other many things I know nothing about…

  13. #13 |  Kevin Carson | 

    I’ve also noticed that when opposing guests seem to be in the process of citing evidence to resolve a basic factual dispute on which an entire debate hinges, the moderator interrupts them and changes the subject because “we don’t have time to get bogged down in detail.”

  14. #14 |  SJE | 

    In which Radley explains why I don’t even watch the TV for “news”, but blogs, newspapers and radio.

  15. #15 |  Cornellian | 

    That’s why I stopped watching/reading pundits years ago. It saves a lot of time and, if anything, I’m better informed as a result. They don’t know anymore about the subject they’re talking about than some random guy sitting near you in a bar, but unlike the guy in the bar, they’ve got a built-in incentive to be dishonest. That pundit really wants to get invited back, or to suck up to whoever he thinks will be in a position to give him a job in the next administration. The desire to inform you is dead last on his list of priorities, if it’s even on his list at all.

  16. #16 |  Joey Maloney | 

    “And save for a few exceptions, noise isn’t just a problem for cable news, it is cable news.”

    It’s so rare that I agree wholly and unreservedly with anything you say, Radley, that it’s always worth noting when it occurs.

  17. #17 |  JS | 

    “I won’t go on the air to talk about any issue or story I don’t feel I’m qualified to talk about.”

    And that’s why you can’t compare yourself to Wendy Murphy or Bob Beckel.

  18. #18 |  Dr. Q | 

    You nailed it, Radley.

  19. #19 |  delta | 

    The written word is still the most powerful thing we’ve invented for dissemination & analysis of knowledge.

    The one thing I’ll hold a faint whisper of hope is that it seems like TV itself is generally on the downswing. I know when I’m on the Web and I click something that’s a video instead or text, I often roll my eyes and go, “takes too long, can’t scan to see if it’s relevant, skipping it”. In just a few months I do way more texting than voice phone calls. TV/video clips seem to take a stupidly long amount of time in the modern Internet-driven information age.

    Maybe that’s just me, but the few things I’ve seen indicate the younger generation is trending somewhat in the same direction, and I think that’s a good thing.

    Good for you for turning down stuff you don’t thing you’re adding to informed debate over.

  20. #20 |  delta | 

    #7 | Pete: “Would not entertain one iota of possibility that Fox News wasn’t telling it absolutely straight. Countered with something like “Look at MSNBC!””

    Extremely common. My response is like this:

    (1) Name another network founded & presided by campaign staff for every presidential campaign by a given party from the 60′s to the 90′s (Roger Ailes was media adviser to Nixon, Reagen, Bush I campaigns).

    (2) Name another network who has 4 of 5 major presidential candidates for a given party currently on the payroll (Fox has Palin, Gingrich, Santorum, Huckabee under contract and often refuse interviews with other news outlets based on the terms of that contract).

  21. #21 |  primus | 

    I totally gave up on TV about 12 years ago. It is such thin soup that it does not nourish, it just takes up time. Life is too short to spend it watching drivel.

  22. #22 |  KBCraig | 

    “I won’t go on the air to talk about any issue or story I don’t feel I’m qualified to talk about.”

    And that’s why you can’t compare yourself to Wendy Murphy or Bob Beckel.

    Au contraire…

    That’s why Wendy Murphy and Bob Beckel can’t compare themselves to Radley Balko.

  23. #23 |  KBCraig | 

    Now that my sycophance meter is pegged out… ;)

    I also prefer radio. And despite their infuriating partisanship and ideological lean, I prefer the long form of “public” radio (quotes added because I include the totally commercial XMPR, which is where I listen).

    Bob Edwards and Tom Ashbrook (“On Point”) are both great at finding learned people to discuss complex problems in depth. Of course, they tend to find people who are completely wrong on the issues, and then cluck their tongues along in disbelief that anyone could feel differently. The ideology and partisanship are blatant, but they do give topics a good discussion (albeit from only one perspective).

  24. #24 |  Gerald A | 

    Cable “news” isn’t the only ones who do it.

    In the early 90′s a local news story about children using the library computers to access internet porn. The librarys position was they didn’t want to block access to anything. In my letter to the editor I questioned the librarys position since they did have an adult only book section.

    A few days later a reporter called to interview me on my “pro blocking porn” position. I politely informed her my position wasn’t that. I told her that I thought blocking software should be added so the childs parents can decide how much access their children were allowed.

    That was quickly followed by a “uh-huh”, thank you for your time.

    Needless to say my comments weren’t used in the followup story.

  25. #25 |  MPH | 

    jrb at #11 has it almost completely correct.

    All TV shows, news shows included, are selling the same thing: access to the ears and eyeballs of their viewers. As jrb pointed out, the more viewers you can claim to have access to, the higher your advertising revenue will be.

    The goal of news shows is the same as all other TV shows: make a profit. If sensationalism is more profitable than accuracy, then sensationalism is what the producers will go for. And I think we all know it is far easier to find people who can be strident and extreme in their views than it is to be accurate. Accuracy can be very difficult and expensive; but finding some assholes to yell at each other on air is easy and cheap.

  26. #26 |  Darryl | 

    We all seem to agree that at some level the sound bites are vacuous and even dishonest. However, I am hearing hints of “if there is enough time, then the media outlets will get it right”. Example–”my favorite media hits are those that give you half hour or more to talk about an issue in-depth.” I completely disagree. I happen to be an expert on three topics. I don’t mean an expert in the sense of strong opinions or informed thoughts–I mean cold-hard-facts type of expert. In my younger days, I used to watch TV whenever one of these topics was being aired in an in-depth manner–60 Minutes for example. I already knew that short stories would be meaningless. Guess what–nothing is different. The facts are manipulated or simply misstated in order to make the preconceived point. The only reason to pay any attention to TV is to know what shallow,stupid, incorrect thing your neighbor, coworker, relative is going to say next.

  27. #27 |  Graham Shevlin | 

    Darryl encapsulates my whole approach to TV news in his last sentence, which I am going to put in my quote database.
    I can tell the people who spend time watching the cable news networks incredibly easily these days. They are the ones who cannot construct any semblance of an argument. They simply talk in slogans culled directly from pundits or talking heads. Amusing and frustrating in equal measure.

  28. #28 |  random guy | 

    Noam Chomsky called this concision. Its the semi-purposeful policy that the things discussed on television can only be talked about for a few minutes between commercials. The only thing that can be conveyed in this time frame is the conventional wisdom, the only things you can discuss is what the audience already knows. If you wanted to lay out the case that say, the US torture program is a war crime and that US officials need to be tried as such, you will never be able to. You get enough time to sound like a crank before getting shouted down by the opposition.

    So yeah tv news exists to make you feel good about what you think you already know. If you want to learn something, read.

  29. #29 |  Cynical in CA | 

    Shorter Balko: Cable news is strictly government-sponsored entertainment.

    But I do like your writing style, so lots of words is good too.

    People still watch cable news? Wow. There really must be enough hours in the day.

  30. #30 |  Blakenator | 

    News as entertainment has been the norm for a while now and that explains everything. The fact that entertainment is designed to inspire emotions over thought draws in the intellectually lazy American audience pretty well.

  31. #31 |  emily | 

    “As a TV pundit your objective isn’t to educate, or inform, or even to make an educated argument in favor of your position. Your job is to reinforce what the people watching on your side already believe. People don’t watch cable news to be challenged or to learn. They watch it to get the latest talking points that they can use in their next political argument at the bar, over the water cooler, or at the dinner table.”

    Absolutely true and I have been trying to articulate this for a long time so thanks for getting the words out. Its showbiz politics, its disgusting. It all comes back to America and its least-common-denominator thinking, no one wants to be challenged anymore.

  32. #32 |  albatross | 

    I think cable news is to information as junk food is to nutrition. You *feel* like you’re being informed, hearing and participating in the debate surrounding important issues, etc. But you’re really just chowing down on empty starch and fat calories.

    Along with that, there’s a point Glenn Greenwald made awhile back, quoting (I think) Noam Chomsky–given the time constraints on those talking head shows, the only positions you have *time* to defend are the ones that everyone already knows and expects. It’s really hard to fit any really new ideas into the available time slots, because they take some explaining.

  33. #33 |  Melissa Black | 

    So TV talk show producers want to pull us viewers in so they can deliver ‘eyeballs’ to their customers–the advertisers who buy commercial time during their broadcast.

    But have you seen the stuff these advertisers are selling during their slots? Cash4Gold, beds that fold in half, kitty litter, weight loss pills, acid reflux pills, bladder control pills, and help for tax evaders. And that’s just what I caught scanning through five channels of cable news for the past five minutes.

  34. #34 |  B | 

    #2 Rich FTW.

    Cable news is basically in the business of making people feel smarter and more informed than they actually are or are willing to take the time to be. Know that, and all the rest of this makes perfect sense.

    It is a happy side effect that serious people occasionally slip through the cracks and manage to broadcast genuine insight. So I do hope you keep doing cable news, even though odds are I won’t be watching…

  35. #35 |  Juice | 

    “So Radley Balko, you think blogs are destroying America?”

    You should have said, “No, that’s not my position and you knew that, but since you asked the question in that way I’ll tell you what is destroying America. It’s 24 hour cable news shows like this one.” Very calm, get up, take your mike off and leave. One last time into the mike, “Thanks for having me. Hope this increases your ratings.”

  36. #36 |  Cable News Makes You Stupid | Agnoiologist | 

    [...] Ctd on Andrew Sullivan’s blog (He’s on vacation, so it’s not Sullivan writing) On Cable News by Radley Balko Cable News Switcheroo by Radley Balko Cable News: Where Being Loud Trumps Being [...]

  37. #37 |  Cyto | 

    #26 | Darryl | Nailed it.

    Frontline on PBS is pretty much the anti-talking head news show. An hour or two of documentary on a single topic, with original sources placed in context. I always placed very high confidence in their reporting. Until they covered a couple of topics that I happened to be knowledgeable about. Hmm… they seemed much less authoritative and straightforward about those topics….

    If it is hard to cover a news story without being full of crap in the two hour documentary format – how hard is it to do that in the 30 second talking head live format? Damn close to impossible? Particularly if you only use pundits that will be familiar to your audience rather than those who are true experts?

    Radley is completely correct about the skills of being a talking head. He’s getting pretty good at doing the TV expert appearance thing – and yet you still feel how incomplete everything he’s saying is. I don’t know if it is because I’ve read the long version before, but hearing the “SWAT serving warrants” problem distilled into 30 seconds or less always sounds terribly incomplete.

    The format is very strange for anything that isn’t “hey Bob, tell us how stupid that Republican is! – OK, time’s up – now Tom can tell us why Bob is an idiot!” The format basically requires two opposing sides who fire off one liners and snappy rejoinders. Anything other than gossip is inappropriate for this format. There definitely is a particular skill to doing the talking head. You have to be very authoritative and sure of yourself so that it sounds like everything you say is a flat fact. You have to be able to completely ignore anything the other side says and get off your snappy little 30 second pre-prepared speech wile making it sound like you are naturally responding to whatever they said. In other words, it is pretty much exactly the same skill set that makes a good politician.

  38. #38 |  eduardo | 

    I like public radio. A good example is To the Point. Typically it will spend a half an hour or more on a single topic. If it is an issue with a left-right divide, it will usually have someone expert from each side, and treat each respectfully. As an independent type, that is what I want, to hear the arguments on each side, and in some depth.

  39. #39 |  And YouThought Whores Only Advertised on Backpage.com | The Agitator | 

    [...] on cable news here. Digg it |  reddit |  del.icio.us |  [...]

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