Leading the Parade



TalkBack Live with Arthel Neville
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Host: Arthel Neville

Weeknights, 7pm ET
Hosts: Paul Begala, Tucker Carlson, Bob Novak, and James Carville

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Host: Larry King

Fox News Channel:
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Weeknights, 7 and 11pm ET
Host: Bill O’Reilly

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Weeknights, 9pm ET
Host: Sean Hannity & Alan Colmes

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Weeknights, 10pm ET
Host: Greta Van Susteren


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Weekdays, 6pm ET
Host: Dan Abrams

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Weekdays, 12noon-2pm ET
Hosts: Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby

Hardball With Chris Matthes
Monday-Thursday 9 pm, midnight & 4 am ET; Fridays, 9pm and midnight ET
Host: Chris Matthews

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Host: Jerry Nachman


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Sunday, 9am ET
Executive Producer: Betsy Fischer
Host: Tim Russert


Now with Bill Moyers
Friday, 8pm ET
Executive Producer: John Siceloff
Host: Bill Moyers

George W. Bush’s only reason for pursuing Saddam Hussein is to divert attention away from the fact that, a year after 9-11, he still has no idea where Osama Bin Laden is or how to find him.

Candidates who use 9-11 or its survivors or relatives of survivors in campaign ads should automatically have their names removed from the ballot.

And while we’re on the subject of ballots… Florida should have all its rights and privileges of statehood revoked until it learns how to count ballots. Until such time, we will just consider Florida to be the World’s Largest Amusement Park.

Want to know what else I think? Probably not. You probably care no more about my opinions than you would those of some nobody who stopped you on the street. We’re busy people these days, few of us have time to talk about the day’s events, and many of us don’t know what the day’s events are. Given this background, it is not surprising to see the wealth of opinion-driven news-talk shows currently on television. These are shows designed to give us the news in a format that accommodates our fast-paced lives, in brief snips, full of convenient sound bites. The hosts typically go a step further, telling us how we should feel about these snips while disparaging those who disagree with them. At a time when rational discussion of life-affecting issues is surely needed, cable news networks have come up with a genre that seeks to shape public opinions through forceful, biased editorials and interviews.

News-talk in itself is certainly not new on radio or tv; NBC’s Meet the Press is television’s longest running program, having premiered in 1947. But the format of Meet the Press is mild compared to the latest batch of news-talk programs. Host Tim Russert has stayed true to the show’s original format, working hard to keep discussions balanced, offering equal time to all sides of an issue, and treating his guests with respect. While Russert may challenge his guests’ views or seek clarification, he never stoops to unprofessional bickering or name-calling.

The same cannot be said about many of the newer programs on cable news networks. Stations like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, looking to fill all hours with “news” programming, have flooded the airwaves with programs designed to “discuss” the important issues of the day. This is understandable; there is a limited number of times you can show an anchor reading the headlines while the same film footage rolls in the background. And frankly, the top headlines rarely change after business has ceased in Washington, DC, and on Wall Street, so there is no need to update every half-hour. Why not fill the time with top reporters interviewing top newsmakers?

Unfortunately, most of the hosts of these shows, such as Jerry Nachman, Dan Abrams, Bill O’Reilly, and Chris Matthews, to name just a few, are more interested in pontificating than in engaging in judicious dialogue. Guests — usually lobbyists, political writers, politicians, and celebrities — quickly learn that if they hold viewpoints other than that of the host, they are interrupted, ridiculed or told that their opinions are not valid.

This generally happens in one of two ways: first, there is the direct confrontation, as when Dan Abrams told a guest that his comment on the Westerfield trial was “just plain wrong.” The second method is to wait until the guest is off-camera, and then attack his view in an editorial (Nachman likes to do this). This second technique is undoubtedly the more disturbing of the two, because it fails to allow the guest the opportunity to respond. Usually, these short opinion pieces relate directly to the preceding interview or news story, but on occasion, they come out of the blue, having no relationship to any other topic discussed on that edition of the program.

The problems with the above format are three-fold: guests are treated shabbily; the focus is on altercation, not resolution; and the hosts, whose opinions are no more valid than yours or mine, act as if their proclamations should be adopted as official policy without further debate.

The first problem is most perplexing. It is unlikely that any of these hosts would treat a guest in his home with the same disdain he treats the guests on his show. Yet, they seem to lose all sense of decorum and decency once the cameras start rolling. After watching various interviewees being mocked, interrupted, and dismissed (by both host and fellow guests), I began to wonder why anyone would agree to appear on such shows. Matthews is so frequently criticized for interrupting his guests that he felt compelled to explain his interview style in his latest book, claiming the interruptions were justified because viewers like a fast-paced show.

This interviewing style contributes much to the combative atmosphere of news-talk programming. Too often, the format pits staunch liberals against die-hard conservatives, assuming there will never be a meeting of minds or even the slightest attempt to find common ground. Fox’s Hannity & Colmes, MSNBC’s Curtis and Kuby, and CNN’s Crossfire insure conflict by pairing hosts with widely differing opinions on everything. (Sean Hannity & Alan Colmes, Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby, and Paul Begala, Tucker Carlson, Bob Novak, and James Carville, respectively.)

These hosts have the annoying tendency to talk at the same time, paying little heed to the actual content of an opposing viewpoint, instead focused on defending or attacking. This tendency is most evident whenever the name “Clinton” finds its way into a discussion. It’s almost comical, as conservatives rehash every Clinton failure and scandal and liberals retell every Clinton accomplishment (whether the Clinton being discussed is Bill or Hillary).

Shows with a single host have not escaped the bickering that plagues the dual-hosted shows. Often, two guests with opposing views are allowed to rip into one another. To those unfamiliar with this genre, it would immediately appear as if the host had lost control of the show, but that isn’t the case. Feeble attempts may be made to produce free, even polite, exchange (“Ms. Jones, if you’ll let Mr. Smith finish”), yet they are seldom backed up with much force. It would be refreshing to hear a host say, “Ms. Jones, if you don’t stop interrupting Mr. Smith, we’ll turn off your microphone until he has had time to finish,” and then actually do it. In other words, it would be refreshing if hosts demanded open and intelligent discussion of ideas instead of shouting matches.

However, even if such exchanges do occur, their effects are negated by the hosts’ frequent editorializing. In an hour’s time, viewers will usually learn how the host(s) feel about three or four of the day’s news stories, and they will be told these opinions in some of the harshest, most emphatic language on television. When the National Education Association decided that dealing with the multi-cultural aspects of 9-11 would be a good idea, Jerry Nachman accused them of a lack of “Americanism” (i.e., ethnocentrism) and blamed all the troubles in the U.S. educational system on those damned wild-eyed school administrators; he conveniently ignored the roles of poor parenting, delinquent students, under-funded schools, and poorly paid teachers in those problems.

As self-righteous as Nachman and other hosts can be, no one is more pompous than Bill O’Reilly, a former high school history teacher who now hosts the top-rated show on the cable news networks. According to O’Reilly’s biography on the Fox News website, he is “the new pope of TV journalism.” (I was unaware there had been an old pope of TV journalism.) And O’Reilly’s inflated sense of importance will likely expand, now that he has convinced Pepsi to stop running its Ludacris ad campaign. While O’Reilly may have had legitimate concerns about Ludacris as a supposed “spokesperson” for a “family” product, the controversy he created with his abrasive editorials helped to push sales of Ludacris’ latest CD over the 2 million mark, encouraging more consumption of the very lyrics to which O’Reilly objected in the first place.

This, of course, is not the first media circus O’Reilly has created. His attacks on the fund-raising efforts after 9-11 caused some to withhold donations for fear that the collection and distribution of funds for victims was not being handled properly; this certainly was not O’Reilly’s goal, to stop donations, but a typical aftermath of his editorializing. Despite the frequency with which his editorials backfire, O’Reilly continues to spew his views with the moral resolution of a saint.

Aside from the fact that O’Reilly tells us he is right, why should we listen to him anyway? In fact, why should we pay attention to any of these confrontational journalists? Do they really “know” more than the average viewer? Brown, Nachman, Hannity, Colmes, and O’Reilly have backgrounds in journalism and years of experience dealing with the major news issues. Other hosts come from more specialized areas of expertise: MSNBC’s Ron Kuby, Fox’s Greta Van Sustern, and MSNBC’s Dan Abrams all started as lawyers; MSNBC’s Curtis Sliwa formed the Guardian Angels; and Chris Matthews was an aide to Tip O’Neill and a speechwriter for President Carter.

Still, I like to believe that I’m an intelligent man. I have a good education, a reputable job (college instructor), and a strong grasp of the English language. Why, then, should O’Reilly, Novak, or Sliwa be allowed to dismiss my viewpoint on issues simply because it differs from theirs? And why should that nobody on the street’s opinion be so easily dismissed? Undoubtedly, that guy has experience with situations that Chris Matthews can’t imagine. An informed opinion is a valid one, no matter the source. And as the U.S. struggles with both old and new problems, it is increasingly important that all views be heard, whether voiced in a cab or in a television studio.

But, as I mentioned before, we are busy people. We don’t have time to listen to every viewpoint, so we pick and choose. Sadly, we too often turn to tv for information, and ignore those with whom we interact every day. Some people trust the woman up the street with the lives of their children every day when they go to work, and they feel that many of their co-workers are honest, hard-working people, but they think both neighbor and co-worker too unintelligent or too uniformed to have a useful opinion about Iraq or next week’s elections.

Of course, we can’t listen to every viewpoint on every issue. But we need honest discussions, and we need to know that those who provide us with the information we need to make difficult decisions are not playing politics by presenting viewers with one side of complex issues in order to increase support for that side.

It would be wrong to imply that all news-oriented talk shows are guilty of bias. Tim Russert, Bill Moyers, and Larry King encourage conversation and challenge their guests without being disrespectful. CNN’s TalkBack Live invites the “average citizen” to add his or her two cents through attending a taping, calling, or sending an e-mail. And it would be wrong to suggest that every interview that Matthews, Abrams, et. al., conduct is lopsided and out of control. For example, an interview Nachman did with a representative of GLAAD concerning the inclusion of same-sex couples in newspaper society pages was surprisingly informative and gentle in nature. However, with ratings climbing for the sadistic style of journalism, these “kinder” interviews will likely not be the future norm, and men and women who honor the profession of journalism through their ethical reporting will find themselves fighting even more than they have in the past, just to stay on the air.

And that is a tragedy. As the U.S. and the world prepares for the prospect of yet another war in the Middle East, it is vital that tv viewers not be limited to one-sided views of The Truth. With innovations in communications technologies, the world has finally reached a point where democracy is possible, with each voice heard and counted in ways more complex than simply casting a ballot. So, as busy as you may be, you should care about the opinions of people like me, as well as your co-workers and the people with whom you live. Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and all the other talk-news hosts should care, too. If they want to lead the parade, it’s time they let everyone march.