The Wonder of TV Debates

Whenever Paul Krugman goes on television, you can see his discomfort coming off him. Or at least that's what I see; since I've never met him in person, I don't know how much his television manner differs from his ordinary manner. But he always looks as though inside he's shaking his head, saying to himself, "This is such bullshit. I can't wait to get out of here." And it's hard to blame him. The other day, Krugman did a debate on Bloomberg TV with noted economic crank Congressman Ron Paul, and came away utterly disgusted:

Think about it: you approach what is, in the end, a somewhat technical subject in a format in which no data can be presented, in which there's no opportunity to check facts (everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?). So people react based on their prejudices. If Ron Paul got on TV and said "Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!" — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say that he won the debate hands down; I don't think my supporters are quite the same, but opinions may differ. Tales of historical debates in which one side supposedly won big — like the Huxley-Wilberforce debate on evolution — are, in general, after-the-fact storytelling; the reality is that that kind of smackdown, like Perry Mason-type confessions in court, almost never happens.

So why did I do it? Because I’m trying to publicize my book, which does have lots of data and facts — but those data and facts don’t matter unless I get enough people to read it.

Props to Professor Krugman for being frank. I've been on TV more times than I care to think about; why just last night I delivered 5 minutes of banal commentary on the politics of Afghanistan to what was no doubt a riveted audience of Canadians watching the CBC. A few of those appearances over the years have had the length to be really substantive; for instance, on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal," which I've done twice, they let you talk for an entire hour. But about 95 percent of them have been cable news hits, which last as little as three or four minutes and never longer than ten. As Krugman says, it's particularly bad when you're asked to "debate" someone who disagrees with you. In my time at Media Matters for America, where I worked for four years, I often went on to debate a conservative about some issue related to the media. And even when I believed I got the better of the exchange, you could almost feel viewers getting stupider as the four minutes of squabbling passed into the ether.

Of course, there are some shows that are more reasonable than others, and a few that actually have something good to offer. And though I'm not particularly proud of it, when I get asked to do it, even on the bad ones, I still usually say yes, basically because I think it's worthwhile to promote the Prospect and a necessary career investment to promote myself. But once the producer says "We're out" at the end of the segment, I usually mutter to myself, "Well, that was edifying for absolutely nobody."

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