Yesterday, the inimitable Jay Rosen put forth a simple fix for the Sunday Morning politics shows -- "Fact check what your guests say on Sunday and run it online Wednesday." It's a simple, actionable idea that I then tried to enhance by suggesting that it would be even better if that factchecking operation could be done in real time.
Lots of readers have returned with some excellent feedback, all of it smart and good-spirited. It seems that people basically would like to see these Sunday morning offerings improved and preserved.
Well... almost everybody! At least one of you wouldn't mind seeing these shows get the death penalty:
Why bother to fix the shows that should be abolished. The format is passe. The participants dull, boring and predictable in their opinions. Many of whom have been around too long. At least opt for new faces, new voices, and people who have a mind to speak.
I can sympathize, but honestly, I'm not really in the business of "abolishing" television shows. Not when I can abolish them anytime I want with my remote control! This Sunday, you can turn on American Movie Classics, and watch Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine star in "Two Mules For Sister Sara," which is about a "nun and a mercenary caught up on the 1860's Mexican revolution." Guess who plays the nun and who plays the mercenary? The answer may surprise you! (SPOILER ALERT: Actually, it won't.)
Many readers were just skeptical that the idealized, real-time factchecking I advocated for could actually be pulled off in a robust and accurate fashion. One reader offered, "I'd guard against countering assertions with a fact-check process that's too frantic. If you rush your fact-checking, and get it wrong, you could end up just compounding the problem you're seeking to alleviate. As they say, act in haste, repent in leisure."
Those concerns were echoed by ABC Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper, who cautioned that the best fact-checking "takes longer than a few minutes... it can sometimes take a day or two to do the job right." And, as fortune would have it, he was able to furnish a pretty compelling example of the sort of comprehensive factchecking that taking the right amount of time permits.
I'll concede to the wisdom, here. To be clear, I definitely think that Jay's idea of a Wednesday, online check-back is the more reasonable and actionable idea. I just wanted to put the idea out there in an idealized form. This was mainly borne out of a concern that a later, Web-based fact-checking system would cede too much ground to the actual televised show in terms of impact. I brought up the "The Daily Show" as proof-of-concept that televised accountability makes for compelling television.
But look, there's no doubt that comprehensiveness is superior, and if that takes time, so be it. Maybe, though, there's a way to work around the time-space-impact continuum. Many of you offered some ideas. For example, it could be baked into the show's format on a weekly basis, as one emailer suggested:
My suggestion: start the next week show with a fact check of last week guests. This will be viewed by all and could even be a magnet for viewers, It would also send a strong message to the Sunday guests.
Another emailer says, "Hear, hear."
I would be content with a "fact check" on the following Sunday morning preferably before the "meat" of whatever show is applicable.
That'd work, and it could help guide viewers to this online, mid-week supplement.
Another correspondent had an even better idea: harness the competitive nature of the various news organizations to serve their own viewers:
Or even better, the competition...could do a piece everyday, a sort of roundup of the interviews conducted elsewhere
As that reader points out, that would also create the incentive for the fact-checker of the competition to step up their own game, lest they themselves get called on the carpet. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, as they say.
Now, for the bad news, here's the perspective on the matter from a veteran broadcaster:
Nice piece, but you miss the essential ingredient in these shows -- they're shows! As a retired broadcaster, once a partner/owner of 30 radio stations in major markets across the country, now turned novelist, let me remind you that all broadcast programming -- radio and TV - is just the stuff we run between the commercials. Yes, I mean that as simply as I have stated it. Broadcasting is a multi-billion dollar industry engaged in selling time. Everything done must advance that agenda. No exceptions. It's nice to have "good" programming, but never at the cost of the product. Look at the General Managers of radio and television stations. Nearly all of them come from Sales. A few from Programming. But none - ever - from the News Department. How many print editors made their bones selling space?
A Sunday morning TV show as you might like it would never be able to produce any nationally important guests. No important guests, no facts to check and also -- no viewers. Such a program will have no commercially viable audience to sell and, if through some miracle it got on-the-air, it would soon be canceled for lack of revenue.
I suppose what I'm saying is that broadcast journalism is an oxymoron, a figment of the public's imagination, stoked of course by the broadcast industry itself, and used by power centers in public life in exactly the same way an author might use an afternoon TV talk-show.
Sigh. I think that this is what Jay meant when he said, "I think the situation calls for cynicism."
Naturally, since yesterday, I've been turning this whole notion of fixing the Sunday Morning shows over in my mind, wondering about what other improvements could be made. And last night, it occurred to me: "Hey. Why not eliminate all the stupid process questions from these shows. Instead of asking guests what they think about how health care policy decisions are going to affect the electoral careers of various politicians, why don't we ask about how health care policy affects actual Americans? What if these Sunday shows just demonstrated a relentless disinterest in the idiotic "who's-up, who's-down?" babble that already clogs the newshole like a sticky hairball?
Obviously, I soon realized that this suggestion verges on blasphemy, like asking the Pope if he'd consider installing Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" in the nave of St. Peter's Basilica.
At any rate, a hearty round of thanks to everyone who offered up their suggestions and insight on this matter. I'm really grateful for all the value that you added to this discussion. Tune in this Sunday, when I liveblog "Two Mules For Sister Sara!"