Home

My Simple Fix for the Messed Up Sunday Shows

59 Comments

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 misleading 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 misleading 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.

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?

NOTES

April 8, 2010: I’m not sure I’ve ever written an update like this. Jake Tapper and ABC’s Sunday morning show, “This Week,” are going for it.

As you may know, we’re trying out some new things on THIS WEEK. Two weeks ago we started live-tweeting of the show (which will next happen at 10 am ET this Sunday).

This week we’ve invited Pulitzer Prize winning website PolitiFact to fact-check the newsmaker interviews featured on the program.

The idea was first proposed by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen??and I thought it worth a try. PolitiFact editor Bill Adair, the St Petersburg Times Washington bureau chief, and I know each other from fact-checking forums and such (I was at the Fact Check desk during the 2004 elections) so I asked him if he’d be willing to give it a try. He was.

Obviously I aspire to fact-check newsmakers during the show itself, but in addition to that, starting this Sunday April 12, after the show, you can read Politifact’s fact checks on ABCNews.com/This Week and at Politifact.com.

Oh, and incidentally, our guests this Sunday will be: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Here’s Politfact.com’s story on it.

April 11, 2010: And on the same day ABC’s Fact Check debuts David Gregory of “Meet the Press” says he wants no part of it! An “interesting idea,” he told Howard Kurzt, but not one his show will be adopting . “People can fact-check ‘Meet the Press’ every week on their own terms.”

Jan. 10, 2010: Michael Calderone, the media beat reporter for The Politico, used this post to examine the depressed state of the Sunday shows. Here’s how it starts:

A new idea recently surfaced for television’s longest-running show: What if Meet the Press fact-checked what its stream of political guests said and ran the results online later in the week?

The suggestion by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen kicked around Twitter and the blogosphere with such force that the show’s host, David Gregory, said in a statement to POLITICO that it was a good idea and his staff is going to talk about it.

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.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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.

Also see the follow-up post Linkins did on reader reactions to fixing the Sunday shows.

Click here to return to the top of Notes

“This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog realism to itself.”

36 Comments

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.

How to know if you are behaving ethically as a journalist: Jay Rosen???s checklist

16 Comments

Presented today to my class in press ethics at NYU

1. Your primary interest is in telling the truth and documenting the real.

2. You’ve eliminated, drastically minimized or clearly revealed any conflicts of interest you may have in telling the truth.

3. You’ve told us what we need to know in order to know where you’re coming from, and to decide how much credence we should give your account.

4. You have not relied on deception, lying or trickery to obtain the information in your account.

5. You’ve made it clear to everyone you are using as a source that you are a journalist doing journalism for public use. 

6. You have reason to think your sources are reliable if you have in fact relied on them to make your account truthful.

7. You are trying as hard as you can (within the constraints journalists labor under) to make certain that every fact you pass along is accurate: before, during and after production.

8. You deal in the verifiable, meaning that what you said happened could in theory be checked–verified–by someone else. 

9. You’ve asked whether there is a substantial public interest in telling stories that are likely to also injure private persons.

10. You are not working for any interest other than the public’s interest in knowing what the hell happened.

and… (added later)

11. You have credited those you borrowed from and made clear who originated any material you are re-using.

Why I don’t trust a thing the Church of the Savvy says about candidate Obama’s call for transparency

3 Comments

How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan

… And in another twist, Mr. Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of transparency and had been announcing each Situation Room meeting publicly and even releasing pictures, was livid that details of the discussions were leaking out.

“What I’m not going to tolerate is you talking to the press outside of this room,” he scolded his advisers. “It’s a disservice to the process, to the country and to the men and women of the military.”

Let me see if I follow this, Peter Baker. What Obama meant when he campaigned on a call for more transparency in government was that he wouldn’t much care if details of his deliberations with advisers leaked from the White House situation room before he made a major decision, and so his sudden turn toward caring whether the details of his deliberatons with advisors leak out before he makes a major decision (like sending 30,000 troops to war) is a fascinating “twist” and quite possibly a bit of hyprocrisy… right?

What I told the man from Politics Daily

1 Comment

Why the Pundits Don’t Like the New Newsweek

David Sessions asked for my comments and this is what I told him. I think it would have improved his piece but he didn’t agree, and that’s his right!

Here’s how I’ve doped it out. Newsweek says, “we’d like to be more like The Economist, they’re doing well enough.” But The Economist has a point of view and it expresses that point of view in un-bylined articles. Now Newsweek doesn’t have the balls to do that; this would remove it from the club: the American press club. So it settles for a fall back philosophy: “provocative without being partisan.” And that’s how you get this awful mix of the sensational and the contrarian.