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?)
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 Politifact.com, 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.
Michael Calderone at Politico:
Change comes slowly to the venerable shows that grip the attention of a small but committed segment of TV watchers every Sunday morning. And taking risks almost never happens, or why would ABC be negotiating with Ted Koppel, who at age 69 made his reputation covering Henry Kissinger and the Iranian hostage situation, to replace George Stephanopoulos as the host of “This Week”?
The shows are particularly ripe targets for critics who see them as the epitome of insider Washington and conventional wisdom. James Wolcott, writing in Vanity Fair last year, for example, described watching the show that Stephanopoulos recently vacated to be “like receiving an engraved invitation to apoplexy.”
“With occasional exceptions, the Sunday shows come across as geriatric and insular, having long been eclipsed and upstaged by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Fox News, MSNBC and much of the Web,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich, a frequent critic, said in an e-mail to POLITICO.
The shows still occasionally make news — just ask Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who made herself an instant national target by declaring on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “the system worked” in the case of would-be terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
But even aficionados of the genre say the shows have declined since the death of Tim Russert, the “Meet” host who brought a sophisticated knowledge of politics and sharp questioning style that no other hosts have been able to duplicate.
Rosen recently wrote that “the Sunday shows are broken.” If so, how can they be fixed? We asked a range of journalists and media experts. Their responses tended to fall into three distinct camps.
Get different panelists and guests
By far the biggest complaint is the scarcity of the young, the female and the nonwhite.
“You’re seeing a real generational changeover in Washington, and I think you’re seeing a new way that politics works, and how journalism works,” said Air America’s Ana Marie Cox. But, she added, “the Sunday show is a holdover from a time that everything is top down.”
Cox, who has appeared on “Face the Nation” and praises Bob Schieffer as a moderator, said that “having people under 40 would be good.”
Rich agrees. The shows “desperately need younger, more diverse and, God knows, wittier panel participants on a regular basis — not as sporadic tokenism — and a rethinking of the same-old cookie-cutter formats if they are to outlive their rapidly aging audience.”
Change the format
The basic formula of a host asking a public official questions, followed by a panel of reporters and policy wonks, seems to have outlasted every major change in culture and technology since the Truman years.
Michael Kinsley, former editor of The New Republic and Slate, and the onetime liberal host on “Crossfire,” said there are several problems with the traditional format: hosts feel obliged to affect a non-partisan, objective posture; journalists on the panel feign expertise over a wide range of issues; and the questions asked are often of the “gotcha” variety.
“What passes for a tough question is too often just about generating a headline or moving the story along a step,” Kinsley said.
To Rosen, the problem is that “the more partisan environment overtakes the premise of a discussion based on mutually agreed-upon facts.” That’s why he is big on fact checking. But he also argues that producers should “diversify their ideas about balance and mix things up a bit.”
“For example, how about striving for balance between tea party conservatives and establishment conservatives, between blogospheric liberals and congressional liberals?” Rosen asked. “The fact that this doesn’t even occur to them shows how evacuated the political imagination is on Sunday morning.”
Who says there’s anything wrong?
Even in the post-Russert era, “Meet the Press” remains the top-rated Sunday show, averaging 3.074 million viewers weekly in the fourth quarter of 2009. But week to week, its first-place rank is less of a sure thing, as both “This Week” and “Face the Nation” may take the top spot in either total viewers or the age 25-54 demographic. Both shows are not far behind: In the fourth quarter, they finished with 2.740 million and 2.618 million viewers, respectively. “Fox News Sunday” brought in 1.184 million viewers.
Given that the Sunday shows attract an older viewership likely to be more resistant to change, there’s hesitancy on the part of producers to mess with the DNA. In addition, the guests — candidates, policy makers, members of the administration — come to expect an almost standard format.
Schieffer, who has moderated “Face the Nation” since 1991, notes that the show hasn’t changed significantly since first broadcast over a half-century ago. He views that fact as attesting to the format’s longevity amid the revolutions in how media is produced and consumed, and “see[s] no reason to make any major changes. Midweek fact-checking doesn’t do it for him either.
“Good Washington journalists ought to be able to do some fact-checking when they question these officials,” Schieffer said. “If it doesn’t sound right to me, I ask him a follow-up question about it.” The problem with guests isn’t lying, Schieffer said, but “getting them off the talking points.”
Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:
The bottom line is, while an after-action report on the Web is better than nothing, the goal should be to get this aggressive journalism on live teevee. Right now, “The Daily Show” has become the sine qua non of turning basic accountability into riveting television. To be certain, the show’s staffers afford themselves a long amount of lead time to prepare — they don’t approach the ideal of instantaneousness. Nevertheless, they are complete and they are brutal, and they are the ones with a audience of viewers who are not entirely disaffected by what they see on television.
I’ve long wondered why it doesn’t just burn the ass of professional journalists to watch a bunch of comedy writers beat them at their own profession on a daily basis. But I think there’s a reason it doesn’t. Having watched these shows extensively, it seems to me that the producers of these shows just feel that the journalists and the guests should be on equal footing — that there’s a virtue in reducing the advantages of the actual journalists. They act as if it wouldn’t be sporting to place their guests at any sort of disadvantage.
This is wrong: they should seek to place their guests at a maximum disadvantage. The reason they don’t is because they’re all terrified they’ll lose access to important decision-makers. They’ve got the essential dependencies in their relationship all running in the wrong directions.
On the other hand, those guys who research and write and pull clips for those segments for “The Daily Show” — they want punchlines to land. They want the butt of their jokes to be clear and unambiguous. They want their viewers to remember what they did. And so they demonstrate a quality that you never, ever see on Sunday, even if you squint real hard: KILLER INSTINCT. Because they want one thing: to win.
So if you’ve ever wondered if the goal of the Sunday programs seems to be the staging of an amiable, risk-free coffee hour where everyone basks in each other’s relative importance, guess what? You are the savvy one. Instead of Meeting The Press, these shows have largely become exercises in Pressing the Meat. And not vigorously enough to be interesting at that.
I imagine hosting a show is awfully difficult. When a guest tells a blatant falsehood, the host may not know it’s a blatant falsehood, or may not have time to delve into the dishonesty in any depth on the air. And since guests can lie and still get invited back, there’s no real incentive to tell the truth — indeed, charlatans are rewarded when their lies reach the audience, which almost certainly won’t see/hear the fact-checking from Politifact, Media Matters, ThinkProgress, etc.
If guests knew the shows themselves would actually report to the audience who is and isn’t telling the truth, they’d have an incentive to be honest. If producers/hosts knew their shows would start taking an interest in fact-checking, they might even stop inviting transparent liars back on the air so often.
And if viewers knew there might be a way to know who is and isn’t telling the truth, and there’d be a modicum of accountability, they might be more inclined to tune in. At that point, the shows would be serving a purpose, which would be a step in the right direction.
Nisha Chittal at Mediaite:
I fully believe that the Sunday morning talk shows need a new media makeover, and I have a handful of ideas for how they can do so. I admit that I know absolutely nothing about what goes into the making of a political talk show. But what I do know is that my generation wants transparency, participation, and engagement in their political process – and their news. So here are my suggestions on how the Sunday shows might undertake a new media makeover that could finally usher them into the year 2010:
Take Questions From Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube
We may be living in the YouTube age, but from the look of most Sunday shows you’d never know it. Remember the 2008 presidential election debates, where CNN and YouTube asked citizens to submit questions to ask of the candidates, and then featured selected video questions during the debate? Would it kill us to allow citizens to submit questions to the newsmakers and politicians on Meet The Press, Face The Nation, and This Week? Whether it’s via Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube videos, allowing citizens to ask questions would give them a connection to the shows, engage them, and allow them to play a role in setting the news agenda. And talk show hosts like David Gregory and Bob Schieffer should help facilitate that citizen-politician connection. Although David Gregory, Bob Schieffer, and George Stephanopoulos all have Twitter accounts, their level of engagement with fans is very low. Schieffer and Stephanopoulos’s Twitter accounts aren’t even really them, but are merely RSS feeds of updates from their websites.
And while we’re on the subject, the only Sunday show with a Facebook page and Twitter account is Meet The Press. And even then, their Facebook and Twitter are both used as one-way, broadcast mediums only. The MTP Facebook page is used solely to push out promotional content for each week’s show, and they receive little response from Facebook users. But what if instead they posted a status update asking citizens: what do you want to ask Janet Napolitano on Meet The Press next Sunday? What if there was a chance David Gregory would actually ask your question to Napolitano on air? I guarantee you citizens of all ages and all backgrounds would start paying more attention if they felt like the networks were paying attention to them.
Create Twitter Hashtags and Highlight Commentary On The Show
Every Sunday I like to tweet a few observations from the morning talk shows, as do many of the other politicos on Twitter. And yet, none of the networks have designated Twitter hashtags for citizens who want to discuss their shows. Designating a hashtag for discussion of their shows — #mtp, for example, for Meet The Press – would encourage citizens to participate in actively discussing their opinions of the shows online. And then, networks could take it a step further by displaying selected tweet-comments in a crawl at the bottom of the screen, allowing us to see viewer reactions to the shows in real time, as they unfold on television.
Spotlight Citizen Photos From Flickr
This Week with George Stephanopoulos always takes a few minutes in the second half of the show to highlight the “Sunday funnies.” What if he were to take a few minutes to highlight citizen photos of the week’s news events from Flickr? What if every show had a Flickr pool where they asked citizens to submit their photos of news from their cities and towns, and then the host of the show were to spotlight a few particularly good photos that illustrate what happened each week that was important to ordinary citizens around the country?
Bring Bloggers on Air
The interesting thing about blogging is that anyone can have access to do it. And when hidden behind a computer screen, there are no barriers to access – like race, gender, age, even education level. The best and the brightest can build an audience and rise to the top on their own, and come from a diverse array of backgrounds. Instead of having the usual suspects on Sunday shows every week, the networks should aim to bring more bloggers on air, and more diverse ones too. Instead of John McCain, who’s made hundreds of appearances, or Juan Williams or Mara Liasson, who appear on these shows every week but are barely relevant to most Americans, why not bring in smart, young, diverse bloggers that millions of Americans read every day and identify with? How about Amanda Terkel, the wicked smart young editor of Think Progress? Nate Silver, the math whiz behind FiveThirtyEight.com? Or Andrew Sullivan, author of one of the most highly-trafficked political blogs in the world? These are the people our generation pays attention to — and they deserve a seat at the table on Sunday talk shows.
Audiences aren’t interested in the typical stale-male-pale panels that Sunday shows are so accustomed to. Bloggers are the new pundits and they’re already setting the news agenda — whether the Sunday shows want to accept it or not.
The Sunday political talk shows used to be an important part of American politics, but as they refuse to get with the new media program, their significance is quickly dwindling. Here’s hoping that 2010 will be the year the networks finally use new media to broaden their audiences beyond the typical Beltway crowd.
Ari Melber in The Nation:
The bottom line is that the Sunday shows still drive Washington politics and retain rare interview leverage over political leaders. The fractured media environment enables politicians to handpick most media appearances, if they want, avoiding aggressive questioning for years at a time. But even the most powerful candidates and politicians submit to Sunday grillings — Calderone notes that Sarah Palin is one of the only national candidates to boycott the shows entirely. (And we all remember how her media strategy turned out.) So it’s a real loss when politicians can dissemble through these appearances without any rigorous follow up.
UPDATE: Jake Simpson at The Atlantic with the round-up of the new fact check at This Week and David Gregory’s response.
April 14, 2010: Jake Tapper and Bill Adair of Politifact are guests on the Colbert Report with Steven Colbert. David Gregory comes in for some merciless ribbing. Colbert mentions my “Simple Fix” post (calling me “Field Marshall Thesarus” for certain features of my writing style.) “A fact check on Wednesday? Is he really suggesting that David Gregory work two days a week?” Fortunately, Colbert says…
David Gregory has rejected this hare-brained scheme, saying “people can fact-check ‘Meet the Press’ every week on their own terms.” Thank you, David! It is not a Sunday host’s job to make sure his guests aren’t lying, any more than it’s a party host’s job to make sure the food isn’t poisoned. (applause..) …The host is there to tell his guests when it is their turn to talk. That is why NBC is currently grooming Gregory’s replacement: a chess timer.
April 15, 2010: On Twitter, Alf Sunde tells Gregory: “maybe your focus should be to watch yesterday’s Colbert Report, you could learn a great deal, like real journalism?”
Look, I don’t think it’s fair to suggest I’m opposed to fact checking or accountability or real journalism for that matter. My view is that I just don’t think we need a formal arrangement to accomplish that goal.
Interpretation: So… what is going on here? As with his defiant claims that the press did well in questioning the Bush Administration’s case for war, David Gregory believes he always and already asks the questions necessary to get at the truth. (So what’s your problem?) If the truth does not emerge from his interviews, it’s not his fault because he–always and already–asks the tough questions. That’s who he is. It’s in his DNA. The criticism he gets is therefore partisan chatter. Or it comes from people who want him to go beyond asking the tough questions to the point of conclusion: that man is lying.
David Gregory thinks that is not his role.
I see two other possibilities for his refusal to adopt the fact check: one banal, the other more troubling. The banal: He’s too proud to adopt something that a competitor picked up on first; it would look like a “me too” response and he is the market leader, first in the ratings and heir to the chair that Tim Russert held. The more disturbing possibility is that he thinks Tapper’s policy may give Meet the Press a competitive edge in booking guests who won’t want to be checked so vigorously. (As opposed to competing with an even better fact check, which would probably cause Bob Schieffer at Face the Nation to adopt the same policy, forcing the guests to accept the new rules or flee to cable, which has a fraction of the viewers.)
Look at it this way: the Washington politician who’s been on Meet the Press more than any other is John McCain. On April 6, Politifact’s truth-o-meter rated McCain a pants-on-fire liar for claiming that he never called himself a maverick. See what I mean?
Joe Gandelman at Moderate Voice