Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A short lesson in why TV news sucks

Former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett tells the tale of how an economist friend of his, Richard Rahn, got bumped from an appearance on the Jim Lehrer PBS show because another economist, Russ Roberts, had written a rap song about economics.

This would be funny, except that Bartlett explains that such show-biz calculations utterly dominate the process of booking talking heads:
Anyone who regularly does TV interviews knows that one is always required to do a pre-interview in which a producer feels you out as to what you will say in response to certain hypothetical questions. It would be simpler if they just came out and said, "We are looking for someone to go on air and say Obama is the anti-Christ (or whatever). Are you willing to do that?"
Such a method, however, is crass and offends the dignity of potential guests, so instead the producer will talk around the issue. She (they are almost always female) will say something like this: "We are thinking about doing a segment on whether Obama is the anti-Christ and looking for guests who will debate this topic. If we had you on what would your take be?"
If you say that the idea is ridiculous you will be thanked and the producer will move on to the next name on her list. Eventually she will find a crazy person like Alan Keyes to say what she wants him to say or someone so desperate to be on TV that he will play Devil's Advocate and pretend to believe that Obama is the anti-Christ for the sake of 5 minutes of air time.
Sometimes, however, the producer hasn't been fully clued in to what it is she is supposed to do and accidentally books a guest unwilling to play the proper role. When this happens, the guest will later get a call canceling his appearance on the grounds that the segment "went in a different direction" or similar BS.
A few weeks ago, I got the "went-in-a-different-direction" explanation from a CNN producer. She'd called one evening to ask me to be on a show the next day -- discussing something I'd written about at The American Spectator --so I'd planned my day with the trip to CNN's DC studio in mind. Showered, shaved, dressed, got in the car and was already en route (it's 70 miles from my house to DC) when the producer called to say they'd changed their plan.

C'est la guerre. You can't really complain. It's just show business. If you want to understand why TV news is show business, you need to read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.

And, yeah, the assistant producer who books the guests is almost always female. It's the "assistant" part, you see. The "senior" or "executive" producer, on the other hand, is almost always a guy.

Funny how that works: Sexism creates lots of "assistant producer" opportunities for women who are never going to make it to "senior" or "executive" producer. And yet no network gets sued for discrimination. Why? Because to file a lawsuit would be bad for the assistant producer's career. And thus it is her ambition that makes her vulnerable to exploitation.

So David Letterman shags the office help like he's Mick Jagger on tour in '72 and, if it weren't for a blackmailer, we'd never know about it. If you sensed some unease on the part of TV news shows in discussing the Letterman scandal . . .

Well, it's show business.


  1. I agree. TV news is almost the same as showbiz news and vice versa. It is because the news now is being dictated by some people for the sake of the ratings.

  2. Imus and Chris Wallace discuss the White House giving Fox News Channel the cold shoulder.

    Is MSNBC getting nervous about Mourning Joe?

    Imus, I can see MSNBC from my window :)