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.

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