…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.