Switching channels

Sam Smith
We couldn’t take it any longer so last week my wife and I changed our family dinner time TV show from Chris Matthews to the PBS News Hour. For me the choice was driven by the fact that I would rather fall asleep of boredom than be hollered at one more time during an otherwise pleasant meal. Admittedly the News Hour is Prozac taken by ear instead by mouth and its staff is so robotic that, should the White House catch on fire, it would probably calmly announce that “we shall be shortly discussing with a panel of experts the effect of this event on the President’s schedule and his budgetary planning.”

I was long familiar with the problem. When my sons were in a DC  elementary school one of their classmates had appeared on the McNeil Lehrer Show with his father to discuss child finances. I asked the boy afterwards how it went. He said, “Well, they seemed kind of nervous. I don’t think they ever had a kid on the show before.”

But still, the News Hour would be better than the shouting, angry lectures, guests being interrupted in the midst of their first sentence, and the look-at-me-aren’t-I-wonderful style of Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow.

Given the similarity in viewer demographics, it is interesting to note that the first Downton Abbey of the season had over ten times as many viewers as did the various MSNBC news shows.

I admit I have a problem. I started out as a radio newsman and the difference between radio and TV talk is often the difference between a telephone and a pulpit or a stage. Radio talk shows favor conversations; too often on TV you have lectures or sermons.

I’ve done TV as well but I’ve never felt as comfortable with those cameras pointed at you like they were cops aiming their guns to keep you from connecting with the audience.

There are a few who manage to keep television human and friendly. Morning Joe is a positive MSNBC exception. And of course there’s Jon Stewart, but have you noticed how, like other late night hosts, he often he plays not to the screen but to the audience in the studio? People to people.

This isn’t about content. I generally agree with Stewart and often disagree with Joe and Mika. But then that was true when I used to listen occasionally to the leading radio talk guy in America, Paul Harvey, not for his usually over conservative politics but for items like this one:

Up in Binghamton New York last night. . . A Little League game. . .

12 year old Ronnie Mitchell hit a high fly ball to center field. Made it to first, rounded second and spun past third. . . .


He slid home


He was safe

(Long Pause)

And dead. No, don’t ask me. There’ll be an autopsy tomorrow. Now page 3. . . .

Paul Harvey at his peak had close to fifty times more listeners than Chris Matthews. And his saving moment was that, with his son facing the draft, he suddenly turned against the Vietnam War, saying to Nixon on one show, “”Mr. President, I love you, but you’re wrong.” I have long suspected that Harvey was far more critical to the anti-war movement than he has been credited with. In any case, he sure knew how to tell a story.

Another problem with television news shows is that they create stars and, once you’ve done that, part of journalism is destroyed.

I once put it like this, “Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from.”

On another occasion, I wrote: “This writer proposes to serve not as an expert, but rather in the more modest and more constructive role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider me simply someone who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.”

That’s not a popular view on MSNBC, Fox or CNN. I suspect MSNBC developed its overblown style as a bad imitation of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.. It’s sort of the media version of what’s happened to liberals generally . Instead of offering an appealing and solid alternative to the right they just yell at it.

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