As more and more Americans continue to follow my example and find something better to do on Sunday mornings than slog through the network television chat shows, the people in charge of these ratings-starved programs will have plenty of opportunity to wonder why they've been abandoned.
For an answer, you could do worse than to look at this past weekend's offerings. In a news cycle dominated by the knotty Iran deal and the many unanswered questions associated with it, the Sunday shows served up a demonstration of one of their most frustrating problems: the unwillingness or inability to provide viewers with any points of view that weren't completely, boringly predictable.
Anyone who tuned into these shows during the last presidential election probably understands this problem all too well. Given the opportunity to delve into any of the issues that animated normal Americans, or invite the sorts of guests who could rile the candidates from their comfort zones and force them to go off-script, the Sunday shows, with alarming regularity, steered instead into the fluff. Again and again, Well-Known Romney Spokesperson and Well-Known Obama Spokesperson would be invited on to the Sunday shows to assure America that they really, really thought the man who was paying them to dispense prepackaged campaign idioms was a super-swell guy.
These are shows that require no spoiler alert. You can't spoil what's visible from a mile away. And when everyone knows what everyone is going to say the moment the booking is announced, why tune in? These shows' producers are hung up on the idea that only a certain, narrow range of guests can possibly bring in high ratings -- and they don't realize that this is a big reason why ratings are hopelessly in decline. Edward R. Murrow's "wires and lights in a box" are forever projected on the wall of this particular dreary cave.
The Iran negotiations have been presented in much the same way. Take CBS' "Face the Nation," for example. This past Sunday, viewers were treated to the sight of Energy Secretary Dr. Ernest Moniz playing the role of Obama administration dogsbody, followed immediately by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sunday morning futility infielder extraordinaire. Sending Moniz into the rut was, perhaps, an inventive idea from the White House, as he came to the table with science-community cred and academy sheen, but the show still ended up resembling nothing so much as two opposing teams' cheerleaders running through their rah-rah routines. (Not that Moniz and Graham ever directly confronted each other, or even appeared on screen at the same time. These shows are too averse to friction of any kind to allow that to happen. Mustn't leave anyone with the idea that maybe one guest or the other could have "won" the debate.)
What about outside perspectives on the matter? Well, most of the Sunday shows woke up this weekend with the same idea: Let's hear from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu! The only problem is that Netanyahu's opinions on the Iran deal have long ago been set in amber. There's actually no reason in the world to have Netanyahu go through the rote exercise of moving air across his vibrating vocal cords and using his lips, tongue and teeth to shape the sounds into words. At this point, one need only look back over the massive body of previously expressed Bibi-opinions and cut a video mashup for all future use. Making Netanyahu take time out of his day to go through the motions was unnecessary, and probably a little unkind, to all involved.
"Face the Nation," to its credit, did just this -- leave Bibi on tape and let Moniz offer the Obama administration's already well-practiced responses. NBC's "Meet the Press" let Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) follow Netanyahu as the White House's chorale leader. ABC's "This Week" gave Netanyahu a few minutes of air, and then moved on to the story they should have just spent the entire show covering -- the horrific California drought. As for "Fox News Sunday," well, they deserve some credit for booking Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), whose positioning in the Iran debate is at least interesting. A nominal Iran skeptic, Corker has thus far held off from joining either the White House's hallelujah chorus or the GOP's hothead squad, in an effort to try to be "the adult in the room."
Still, beyond the Beltway, there's a world of outsider perspectives to be had. Why can't these shows find any?
This is not a phenomenon unique to the Iran story. Last year, with the annual mens' college basketball tournament occasioning a debate about the NCAA's labor-cartel arrangements, "Meet the Press" endeavored to pretend as if it deeply cared about the issue. But the results were as timid as they come, and critically, the same lack of unique outsider perspective was to blame. As The Nation's Dave Zirin wrote:
To discuss this issue, Gregory secured three people for the Meet the Press table, including NCAA President Mark Emmert. That's good start! Mark Emmert, is a man who makes a $2 million annual salary defending the status quo. The people Emmert could have been in discussion with is tantalizing. Maybe we would see civil rights author Taylor Branch, whose piece on the NCAA rocked the sports world. Perhaps one of the other guests would be New York Times columnist William Rhoden, whose book $40 Million Slaves examined the social position of African-American athletes. Or we could get USA Today’s Christine Brennan, who has written extensively about equity for women in college athletics.
Instead, according to David Gregory’s twitter feed, the Meet the Press team wanted to bring in some former jocks. That is a great call! There are numerous ex-college players who have been actively organizing to wrest a degree of justice from the clutches of Mark Emmert. Maybe they booked former All-American Ed O'Bannon, who has led a lawsuit against the NCAA’s use of player’s likenesses without their permission. Or perhaps they would bring on Ramogi Huma, a onetime UCLA football player who started the National College Players Association. We could hear from a former NCAA athlete who is a woman, like Kate Fagan, who could speak to issues of Title IX and how paying certain athletes could affect others. Or best yet, Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter, who led his team to actually organize a union. America could hear from the young man who said, “Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”
As you might surmise from Zirin's lengthy setup, all of those useful voices went unheard, as "Meet the Press" instead, confusingly, opted to book former Duke basketballer and famed former Obama "body man" Reggie Love. Also present, for some reason, was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose agency's current stance on its contract debt collectors running buck wild is basically just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. There was no real reason to think that Duncan would offer any challenge to Emmert, or to the NCAA's status quo.
And, indeed, as Zirin went on to note, Love was a complete non-entity and Duncan's bold solution to the NCAA's problems was to find some way to ensure that its athletes are properly fed and allowed to travel home for family emergencies. "Emmert just sat back like he was getting a spa treatment," wrote Zirin, a description that could really be applied to anyone appearing on the Sunday morning salons.
As helpful as the P5+1 negotiations have been to everyone who makes their bones being loudly for or against stuff on camera, what would truly serve the public right now are some different points of view. Israel is not the only country in the Middle East currently looking askance at Iran. With the terrifying rise of the Islamic State, and the swelling instability in Yemen casting a bloody pall over the diplomatic politesse we've seen in Switzerland, it might be interesting to see whether some future arrangement between Iran and the West is currently at the forefront of everyone's minds over there, as it seems to be here.
We could use some Iranian perspective on the matter, while we're at it. Someone like Meir Javedanfar, the Iranian-born/Israel-residing co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran, could provide a unique look at what's happening in Iran as the diplomatic efforts proceed to the next act. Even now, while Javedanfar looks favorably upon the deal's potential, he's nonetheless sounding an alarm about how the Iranian government is communicating the details of the deal to its citizens. Javedanfar recently called on the U.S. State Department to "translate the text of the agreement on their site into Persian, so that the Iranian public are left with no doubt as to what has been agreed and what has not been agreed." It might be interesting to hear from someone who can speak about the diplomatic arrangement with a sane level of both optimism and skepticism -- and who might have insight into the specific ways these efforts could be waylaid.
Or, we could hear from the other mostly voiceless party to this pageant of statecraft -- the Iranian people. Why not book someone like British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai, author of City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran? Few writers have offered as detailed a look at what passes for normal life in Iran's capital, where ordinary Tehranians are forever navigating the perils of a paranoid, fundamentalist authoritarian state as they attempt to act upon their intimate desires and longings. Navai's work sows a deep distrust of Iran's rulers and a deep sympathy for the people most directly oppressed by it. In that, there's probably no better way of viewing our own dilemma with the nation -- a state that's hard to trust, ruling over a citizenry that no one wants to see harmed.
If there's one rule of thumb I would urge the world's Sunday-show producers to keep in mind, it would be this timeless piece of advice from Paul Waldman, which I reckon I'll keep mentioning until someone recognizes it for what it is -- the path to fortune and glory. "As a first rule," Waldman wrote at The Washington Post last year, "the people you bring on should 1) know as much as possible about the things you’re going to discuss, and 2) have little if any interest in spinning."
Following that advice would immediately make any Sunday show stand out from its competitors. Someone, anyone, please take the chance. The 2016 presidential election is looming, and I can already script the voiceover: "This morning! A debate between Jeb Bush's campaign spokesperson and Hillary Clinton's campaign spokesperson! We will finally determine which one thinks their candidate is more awesome, and who believes it the hardest!" In a terrible burst of precognition, you, the viewer, will be able to see how the entire next hour will unfold. And chances are, you'll go looking for something else instead.
[CORRECTION: This post originally depicted Zirin's post on "Meet The Press" as having been written in 2015. This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that it was written in 2014. We regret the error.]
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