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Bill Mann

Bill Mann

Posted: May 28, 2009 11:38 AM

TV Cable News: Pro Wrestling Meets The Argument Culture


Barack Obama "versus" Dick Cheney! Cable battle royale!

So what if "Big Dick" had nothing new to say? So what if Cheney's about as popular as swine flu right now, or that he offered only his usual paranoid blatherings? Cable news billed it as a political cage match!

Welcome to what author Deborah Tannen dubbed "The Argument Culture" in her classic book. It's a TV blight beloved only by certain cable-news shows and their segment producers.

It's a world in which heat , not light, is generated -- because that's what some TV producers are convinced most viewers want.

Jon Stewart's audience laughed last week each time a clip was shown from "Big Ed" Schultz's new MSNBC argue-a-thon with four grown men shouting at each other.

Pointless, heated arguments are also the bedrock of the insufferable Chris Matthews and his "Hardball" on MSNBC, on which a "Democratic strategist" is routinely pitted against a "GOP strategist." Matthews would interrupt The Pope to get his two cents in.

This is also why CNN puts on public display a looneytoon like former Congressman Tom Tancredo and lets him rail about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's supposed "racism."

Gotta hear the other side, even if it's bogus. How about booking instead a thoughtful analyst of the jurist's rulings? Faggedaboudit.

The Argument Culture mentality is also why NBC's estimable Andrea Mitchell had to limit her thoughtful, post-Obama analysis last week to less than a minute. We gotta get Cheney on to contradict the President for "balanced" coverage, defenders of this ridiculous and gratuitous spectacle would doubtless say in their defense.

By that evening, several network anchors were even calling the TV-created Obama/Cheney "showdown" a "classic confrontation." National politics as pro rassslin'.

Pathetic? Oh, just a tad.

Tannen saw this TV-fueled mentality emerging in her prescient 1998 book, which opens:

"This is not another book about civility...it's about a pervasive, warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue as if it were a fight.
"It has served us well in many ways, but in recent years, it has become so exaggerated that it is getting in the way of solving our problems."

Cable news, like talk radio, has coarsened our culture, turning it into a daily sideshow for loudmouths and know-nothings. It's all about the perceived best way to get ratings - by keeping the pot stirred.

A long-time radio talk host, a traditional conservative, was disgusted but wiser after leaving broadcasting a few years ago - partly due to the disgraceful hatemongering of Michael Savage, who broadcast on the same station. Disgusted, he told me in his exit newspaper interview:

"What do YOU think will get higher ratings - a calm discussion of foreign policy -- or two sailors duking it out down at the bar? That's the way talk-radio programmers operate these days."

Tannen adds this about cable's now-dominant Argument Culture:

"It urges us to approach the world - and the people in it - in an adversarial frame on mind. It rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who possess the most extreme, polarized views and present them as 'both sides.'"

Sound more than a bit like CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and Fox News today?

Some might argue there are two sides to every argument.

Not true. Tannen gave a perfect example of this on PBS's "Newshour" when her book appeared:

"Holocaust denial has had far more success in the United States than any other country. Why? In our eagerness to show both sides, sometimes that means giving a forum to people who claim that the Holocaust never happened. A woman did a book discussing Holocaust deniers --and she was invited on television if she would also allow them to invite deniers and debate them. "She said, 'But there's nothing to debate; this is history; it's fact.'"

A Modest Suggestion:

Would it be so heedless to have two thoughtful, even entertaining and witty, people on cable-news shows to discuss an issue once in awhile - instead of shrill and annoying opinion-mongers?

Richard Pryor once commented, "My mama said everyone has two things: An asshole and an opinion."

On cable news today, all too often, we get both.