Storylines: Tough Chat

A few years ago, people who thought liberals were too squeamish in public debate wondered how they could make it in the aggressive and strident forum of talk radio. [See Tom DeVries, "We'll Talk About That: Can Liberals Do Radio?" TAP, March-April 1996.] Today the same question has come up about another rough-and-tumble medium: political chat shows on television.

The world of the chat shows isn't just Crossfire and the McLaughlin Group anymore. Today there's a whole universe of shows with names like Rivera Live, Hardball, Internight, Equal Time, and the Capital Gang. These shows owe something to the talk radio format, and many -- like CNBC's Rivera Live -- first took off providing wall-to-wall coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial. But they're also an indirect product of the mad rush among telecommunications conglomerates to secure a foothold in key sectors of the entertainment and information industries, especially the market for 24-hour cable news channels. Chat shows are cheap to produce and generate a ready audience. And that's music to the ears of producers who have to fill 24 hours of airtime every day.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the political chat shows is the belief that their viewership is minute. While none of the shows come anywhere near the ratings of a prime-time network sitcom, their numbers are nevertheless substantial. Consider the following comparison. The nightly network evening news shows reach around eight million households apiece each evening. Geraldo Rivera's weekly show on CNBC about law and politics, Rivera Live, reaches just under three-quarters of a million households. CNN's Crossfire and CNBC's Hardball each comes in slightly lower at about half a million. But even ratings judged in these terms underestimate the chat shows' true significance. Just as the Sunday morning political talk shows help shape opinion far beyond those who actually view them, the evening chat shows play a key role in the new ecology of political news far out of proportion to their direct viewership. The chat shows provide the running commentary on the news -- the buzz behind the interweaving news cycles of television, newspapers, political weeklies, and the Internet. Though never decisive in themselves, they play a sometimes crucial role in shaping the unseen forces that create political momentum and damp it down.


NO MATCH

It's a new medium and perhaps not always a pretty one. But it also recalls an earlier framework for civic debate and political communication. Instead of journalists presenting information from an ostensibly neutral standpoint, hawkers of opinion tendentiously clash in plain view. Many observers take a sour view of this confrontational format; some liberals, in particular, seem to believe that it inherently disadvantages liberal opinions. Many liberals are instinctively receptive to the crusade for "civility" in public life and the call for press reform that goes under the heading of "civic" or "public" journalism. To these liberal critics, the chat shows themselves reflect a deeper decay in the body politic that liberals should seek to cure rather than engage.

That's a mistake. Liberalism's estrangement from the world of the chat shows -- and from the world of popular politics more generally -- leaves the medium almost entirely to the political right. Of course, conservatives aren't the only ones on the political chat shows. Far from it: the format for most of the shows
dictates some equivalent of Crossfire's division of guests "from the right" and "from the left." But too often the lineup includes a GOP partisan against a paid defender of the White House such as Anne Lewis or (the formerly paid) Lanny Davis. Or a show pits a GOP ideologue against a middle-of-the-road journalist.



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Consider the following example. CNN's Inside Politics has on more than one occasion paired Tucker Carlson and Margaret Carlson (no relation) as if this were a right-left matchup to discuss the issues of the day. But Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at the conservative Weekly Standard who is ideological, partisan, and a reliable spokesman for the political interests of conservatism. Margaret Carlson is a reporter and columnist for Time magazine, whose political views -- to the extent that they are visible in her on-air commentary -- are vaguely liberal and inclined toward social tolerance. But the crucial difference is this: Margaret Carlson still holds to a standard of reportorial objectivity. It takes nothing away from her to say that this is simply not an equal match.

Or take another example, from CNN's Sunday morning chat show Late Edition, where the panel is most often made up of Steve Roberts, Susan Page, and Tony Blankley. Again, Roberts is a vaguely liberal reporter and columnist, Page is a middle-of-the-road columnist of indeterminate politics, and Blankley is the former press secretary for Newt Gingrich!

So what's going on here? Is there some sort of ingrained right-leaning bias at work? Not really. It's just that conservatives are more adept at using a medium that responds well to unabashed partisanship and an adversarial form of political rhetoric. I don't for a moment suggest that Margaret Carlson or Steve Roberts should slough off their role as working journalists to become Tucker Carlsons or Tony Blankleys. But liberals do need their own equivalents of these partisan, engaged writers and pundits. And today they're just too few and far between. The sad irony is that while liberal devotees of high-minded civic discourse have been blathering on about the awful shouting and frivolity of the chat show culture, they've left the field almost entirely to well-organized conservatives who have been taking liberalism for all its worth.


THE TALK TANKS

The success of organized conservatism in funding and distributing such policy intellectuals as Charles Murray and Dinesh D'Souza is a well-told story. But something similar has taken place in the world of the political chat shows. There are seemingly countless conservative centers, think tanks, and mailing list organizations that are self-consciously partisan and provide ready-made talking heads for the chat show circuit.

One particularly striking example is the Independent Women's Forum [see Wendy Kaminer, "Will Class Trump Gender," TAP, November-December 1996]. The IWF is a prototypical example of a new phenomenon on the Washington scene, the talk tank. While superficially designed to ape the trappings and apparatus of a think tank or an advocacy group, the IWF functions more like a speakers bureau and seems to exist solely to package pundits for the political chat shows on television and radio. And the IWF is very successful. It's hard to watch the political chat show circuit for any length of time without seeing at least one blonde and business-suited face sporting the institutional affiliation of the IWF.

One of the most recognizable faces on the chat show circuit is Barbara Olson, commonly identified as a "former federal prosecutor" or as "a member of the Independent Women's Forum." But her background and who she speaks for is a good deal more complicated. Whatever else you can say about Olson, she's in a position to know quite a lot about the various Clinton scandals, the subject she has been commenting on for the last six months. Her husband, Theodore Olson, is a close personal friend and colleague of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and a board member of the American Spectator.

Barbara Olson has also amassed an extensive, if less byzantine, resume as an anti-Clinton investigator. After serving as an assistant United States attorney, Olson moved on to work as an investigator for Dan Burton's House Reform and Oversight Committee's investigation of Travelgate and Filegate. From there she moved on to the Senate, where she served first as the general counsel for Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, and then as Nickles's staffer in the Senate campaign finance investigation hearings. Olson started appearing regularly on the political chat shows shortly after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke in late January and has been doing so ever since. On April 1 she took a leave of absence from Nickles's staff with a nominal Senate salary to work the political chat show circuit full-time, quickly climbing the chat show food chain from middle-level shows like Rivera Live to an appearance on the coveted This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. To date, Olson has been most visible speaking up for Ken Starr and other Clinton adversaries. But she and other members of the IWF can be relied upon to provide the party line on topics like tax cutting and ending affirmative action just as easily.

An even more striking example of this revolving door between government service, activism, and punditry is the husband-and-wife tag team of Victoria Toensing and Joseph DiGenova. If you've watched even a few political chat shows, you've almost certainly seen one of them. Both lawyers and former Justice Department officials under the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Toensing-DiGenova team followed the customary path from government service to employment as high-priced Washington lawyer-lobbyists. They first became media celebrities as lawyer-commentators during the coverage of the O. J. Simpson case. But the duo only really came into their own when the same crop of chat shows turned their attention to the Clinton sex scandals and campaign finance investigations.

Though both are politically active Republicans, they are also, like Olson, customarily identified as "legal analysts" or "former Justice Department officials." And each is deeply tied into the Republican power network in Washington. While providing expert opinion on Rivera Live and other evening shows, for instance, the two were also serving as the paid cocounsels for the House subcommittee investigating the 1996 Teamsters election. And at the same time that DiGenova was commenting on Dan Burton's House investigation of the Chinese money connection, he was also Burton's personal attorney, defending him against -- of all things -- breaking campaign finance laws.

Of course, none of this is illegal. But it does show a keen appreciation on the part of organized conservatives of the key role of the political chat shows in the new ecology of political information. There are liberal analogues to these GOP chat-meisters. But they are not nearly as numerous or effective.


CHAT SHOW WACKOS

The chat shows now also increasingly launder beyond-the-pale allegations and theories, taking them from the fringe into the mainstream of political discourse. Consider Larry Klayman, the chairman of the conservative public-interest law firm Judicial Watch and a frequent guest on shows like Crossfire, Internight, Rivera Live, Talkback Live, Prime Time Live, Charles Grodin, Inside Politics, and Equal Time. Klayman's group is in the business of suing the Clinton administration for various misdeeds ranging from Travelgate and Filegate to the far-flung campaign finance investigations. Klayman's rapid rise to chat show stardom has in large part been due to the chat show producers' inveterate desire to book guests who are quotable and willing to talk.

What goes unmentioned on TV, though, is the fact that Klayman is also the purveyor of some of the most outlandish accusations against Bill Clinton. Take the case of Ron Brown, the late commerce secretary, who was killed in the crash of an Air Force jet in Croatia in April 1996. Klayman believes that Brown was murdered so he wouldn't spill the beans about the administration's campaign finance shenanigans.

When I interviewed Klayman late last April, he was more than willing to walk me through the whole thing. Klayman believes that Brown was supposed to have died in the plane crash but apparently survived. He was then dispatched with a revolver by an unknown assassin sent to finish the job before rescue crews arrived.

Chat show producers don't seem to think Klayman's proclivity for irresponsible charges is much of a problem. If we "made points or clarifications about every guest on the show," Rick Davis, senior executive producer of Crossfire, told me, "we'd get in the way of the 22 minutes of debate." It's an adversarial show, Davis reasons, and viewers can decide for themselves about a guest's credibility. In any case, Davis insisted, "Klayman has on any number of issues moved the ball forward -- on issues like John Huang, Filegate, and others." You'd think his credibility on these other issues would suffer, but apparently not enough to lose airtime.


VITAL ANTAGONISM

There is, of course, an unspoken dilemma hiding behind every discussion of the political right's masterful use of the technological apparatus of the new media. If the right is populating the chat show circuit with loathsome shills, is this something liberals are supposed to decry or imitate? But the choice is hardly so stark. To counter the rightward tilt of the chat show culture, liberals don't need to ape right-wing extremism and irresponsibility. They need people who have the good sense to call the apologists for the right on their errors and lies and to articulate liberal ideas with potent language. The issue is mostly a matter of rhetoric and tone, the need to combine sound judgment and intelligence with partisan commitment. To survive in the world of partisan contention, liberals need to learn to adapt. And more than anything they must shed their often high-minded disdain for the rough-and-tumble of popular politics.

It's true that one can scarcely imagine a Walter Lippmann or a Joseph Alsop duking it out on Crossfire, or rating the State of the Union address on the McLaughlin Group's notorious scale of one to ten. But that's not the point. Popular politics has always been like a waterfall, graspable only in motion, always in descent, and yet never quite falling. Politics is not simply a matter of issues -- at least not as we generally understand the term today. In a democratic society, politics is not just a means to governance but a form of public spectacle and drama. It is filled with rooting for your side; the joys of partisanship; the camaraderie of shared beliefs; the reveling in political talk; the pleasure of invective.

To say that politics in a democratic society involves pomp and spectacle is not a concession. Nineteenth-century American politics, from Jefferson and Jackson to Bryan, was filled with the most scurrilous political attacks, vicious cartoons, a blatantly partisan press, torch-lit parades, and overt appeals to emotionalism of every kind. There is no such thing as an engaged politics that does not to some degree derive its vitality from antagonism. That's a reality high-minded liberals seem somehow to have forgotten. And it's one they ignore at their peril.



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