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Alexander Dresner

Alexander Dresner

Posted: January 24, 2010 03:04 PM

The Problem With Cable News: Revisited

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This is a follow-up to a piece I wrote for Huffington Post back in August in which I took aim at cable news shows for their lack of on-air diversity, particularly with respect to the average age of guests and to ethnic make-up. Here, the attack resumes once more.

Three nights ago, in a sprawling space within the Watergate and looking out over the Kennedy Center from ten stories up, the National Journal Group held an intimate gathering to offer cable news producers an opportunity to meet with writers from National Journal Magazine, the Hotline, and Congress Daily. Taken together, these three publications are somewhat of a Holy Trinity here in D.C., providing politicos with substance, insight and often-accurate foresight. The National Journal Group's goal that evening was simple: to get more of their journalists on the network line-ups. The event's piece de resistance was an 8-person panel comprised of the Group's most promising potential on-air talent. As this Q&A political medley wound down, it became clear to me why the networks won't be calling upon these experts anytime soon: they lack presence. They were smart beyond doubt, but they lacked confidence, they lacked charm. This was unvarnished intellectualism, and the network producers wanted none of it.

This cuts at one of the main problems with cable news shows today. Instead of smart, savvy (if a little rough around the edges) political commentary, viewers are forced to endure the stale fare of political operatives and partisan columnists. This is naturally a selective characterization, but the point remains valid: for every Doris Kearns Goodwin or Charlie Cook, there are five talking heads from the Democratic and Republican parties. Network execs and producers seemingly believe that the best format is to pull guests from the left and the right and let them duke it out. This leaves the cable news line-up as a showcase for political hackery, where guests come equipped with nothing more than boilerplate talking points. Granted, some networks and shows are worse than others -- MSNBC and Hardball with Chris Matthews earn special recognition here -- but generally the level of discourse is such that cable news has become unwatchable.

Theoretically, it's an easy fix: change the guest composition on cable news shows. Instead of a communications director from the DNC who might be easy on the eyes, go for substance; book the guest with area-expertise. When talking about the 2010 elections, we don't need to hear from Michael Steele or Howard Dean; viewers would gain a deeper understanding of the issues from non-partisan campaign analysts -- experts who could synthesize the positions of both parties while offering impartial historical perspective and context. I imagine the television equivalent of National Public Radio.

However, networks seem unlikely to take this route. If viewership drops -- and it very well may when spectacle turns to substance -- reinvention becomes costly. Whether or not this change could ever be a prudent business decision is dependent on factors I have no knowledge of: in particular, whether there is enough of a niche market out there for this high-level intellectual analysis (and one that can distinguish itself enough from Charlie Rose) that a show can be made profitable.

With any luck Sergei Brin will step forward and fund this venture with the same degree of passion and same deep pockets that he has shown with past philanthropic efforts. Until then, I'm steering clear of cable news shows.