POLITICS

How To 'Fix' The Sunday Morning Shows

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jay Rosen, saints preserve him, has posted a "Simple Fix For The Messed Up Sunday Shows". Since Sunday morning is the time when I personally do penitence for the salvation of my immortal soul by watching these infernal displays, I'm interested:

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 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?

I think that as a modest fix, this is really off to a good start. Obviously, it's just plain sad that journalists are outsourcing their essential tasks to outfits like Politifact but that seems to be the game now. But I'm all for fact-checking. And I'm all for real consequences when people get things wrong or lie or abuse the platform. There's no value in having a repeat guest if they're just repeat offenders.

But if this solution has a flaw, it lies in the asymmetry -- the Sunday shows simply exert a power and a draw and a space in the newshole that's just not going to be matched with some late-week online follow-up edition. At the moment, many of these shows end by encouraging their viewers to "continue the debate" or "follow the discussion" online anyway. How many viewers do? Probably not many.

If a midweek fact-check on the Internet gained a reputation for being truly compelling, having real teeth and doling out real consequences, then maybe people would browse over on a regular basis. Mainly, though, I think people will wonder why these news outfits can't just manage to be compelling and bare their teeth and mete out consequences on Sunday.

So let me try to bring a little creatine to this scene. 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?

At the very least, the producers of these shows should be capable of calling out anything that doesn't pass the "Look What You Can Find On Google Within Thirty Seconds" Test. But the thing that sort of astounds me is that so often people come on the Sunday Morning shows saying things that are easily predicted or anticipated, given the news cycle that's preceded it. A creative team of reporters or researchers should be able to get in front of what a guest is going to say. I have a funny feeling that the need to employ Politifact as an after-the-fact fact-checking service may prove to be unnecessary, given the work they've likely to have already done before the fact.

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.

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