Media

Why Do the Sunday Shows Suck So Much?

I know you're dying to know what these two have to say.

In the American media landscape, there is no single forum more prestigious than the Sunday shows, particularly the three network programs and to a slightly lesser extent "Fox News Sunday" and CNN's "State of the Union." The Sunday shows are where "newsmakers" face the music, where Washington's most important people are validated for their importance, where issues are probed in depth. So why do they suck so much?

I live and breathe politics, yet I find these programs absolutely unwatchable, and I can't be the only one. On a typical episode, there is absolutely nothing to learn, no insight to be gained, no interesting perspective on offer, nothing but an endless spew of talking points and squabbling. Let's take, for instance, yesterday's installment of "This Week With George Stephanopoulos"...

David Brooks, the World's Most Gullible Man

Flickr/Newshour

A couple of weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a scathing piece about Mitt Romney's "47 percent" video, saying "It suggests that Romney doesn't know much about the culture of America." But now that Romney has moved to the center, not only is Brooks back on board, he's here to testify that this new moderate Mitt is the "authentic" one. I kid you not:

But, on Wednesday night, Romney finally emerged from the fog. He broke with the stereotypes of his party and, at long last, began the process of offering a more authentic version of himself...

Most important, Romney did something no other mainstream Republican has had the guts to do. Either out of conviction or political desperation, he broke with Tea Party orthodoxy and began to redefine the Republican identity. And, having taken this step, he's broken the spell. Conservatives loved it! They loved that it was effective, and it was effective because Romney could more authentically be the man who (I think) he truly is.

And what do you know, the "authentic" Romney just happens to be the one who adopts a perfectly Brooksian version of conservatism, one in which you say nice things about bipartisanship and compassion, then pursue dogmatic right-wing policies.

Let me repeat what I've said before: There is no "authentic" or "real" Mitt Romney. Neither the moderate we saw in the debate, nor the Randian of the "47 percent" video spewing contempt on society's moochers, nor the "severely conservative" candidate (his own words) of the primaries is the real Romney, because there is no real Romney. He is whoever he believes the political requirements of the moment demand him to be. His persona is always in flux, changing as the political situation changes. And he obviously surmised—quite accurately, as it turned out—that with conservatives growing increasingly desperate over his campaign's prospects, he could unveil a newly moderate persona at the debate and they would silence their objections.

If there had ever been a single moment in his political career in which Romney took an unpopular stand, assuming a real political risk out of conviction, you might say that he had revealed the "authentic" Romney. But he never has. Yet David Brooks apparently believes that when Romney changes his identity once again, in a way that just happens to improve his political fortunes, that he has brought forth his true self. I suppose if Brooks were some kind of Hannityesque partisan hack, you could assume that he's only saying this because it helps Romney. But that's not who Brooks is. He actually believes it.

CSI: David Byrne

An investigation of music’s power by one of its great polymaths

(Flickr/DividedSky46)

If you listen to music too soon after reading David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, especially Chapter 5 (how recording studios shape what we hear), Chapter 6 (how collaborations shape what we hear), and Chapter 7 (how recording budgets shape what we hear)—you might be in for a disorienting experience, like watching a magic show after you’ve been taught all the tricks.
I happened to put on Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel, an album I’ve enjoyed repeatedly over the past few months. Suddenly, instead of the songs I’d come to know by heart, with their minimalist but emotionally brutal stabs at self-analysis that it took Apple seven years to complete, I heard an assembly of parts. I became obsessed with microphone placement and where each song was recorded, debated whether I was hearing an upright piano or an electronic keyboard, tried to picture the number of musicians, imagined Apple’s writing process (words first? music first? spread out over seven years or in spurts?), and wondered what it cost to make something sound so expensive yet so lean.

Obama Insufficiently Audacious for Press Corps

Barack Obama, lazing about. (White House/Pete Souza)

There are few deeper ironies than to hear campaign reporters complaining that candidates are not being substantive and detailed enough, and it seems that they now may be turning their wagging finger toward both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Don't get me wrong—I'm all for substance, and there are some kinds of vagueness that have to be confronted. For instance, the fact that Romney says he can cut taxes but keep things revenue neutral by also cutting loopholes, yet steadfastly refuses to say which loopholes he'll eliminate, is just absurd and should be called out. Yet if he came out tomorrow with a dozen new lengthy policy papers, would the campaign reporters on his bus stay up late studying them so they could produce one policy-dense analysis after another? No, they wouldn't. Just as candidates often want to seem substantive without actually being substantive, the reporters want to judge substance without having to actually examine substance.

Newsweek: Is Asking Inane Questions the Future of Journalism?

Was Mussolini Right?

"He made the trains run on time," they said about Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and it was more than just a cliché. It was a statement about a government that works, a government that means what it says and does what it wants. Sure, there were some problems with the treatment of dissidents. But some very smart political analysts are asking a question that would have been surprising just a few years ago: Is it time to give fascism another try?

The Simple Question That Never Gets Asked

Flickr/Alexander Drachmann

Yesterday, conservatives got all outraged because a microphone picked up a few journalists discussing with each other what questions they would ask Mitt Romney at what turned out to be his disastrous press conference on the events in Cairo and Benghazi. Aha! they shouted; Michelle Malkin told the Mensa convention that is "Fox & Friends" that "If it looks, sounds, talks like journo-tools for Obama, it is what it is." As Erik Wemple patiently carefully explained, in contexts like press conferences—by both Democratic and Republican politicians!—reporters often plan out what questions they'll ask. And you know what? They ought to do it more often. Maybe they wouldn't ask so many dumb questions.

It's certainly a problem that politicians are so sneaky and evade the questions journalists do ask. And the reporters don't really have time to sit down and engage in a process of deliberation so they can use their collective knowledge and wisdom to arrive at the questions that will prove the most edifying for the public. (And I should say that the problem isn't exclusive to political reporters. If I hear one more sports reporter who can't think of anything more interesting to ask an athlete than "What does this victory mean to you?" I'm going to scream.) But more often than not, what sounds on the surface like a zinger of a question doesn't actually amount to much more than an invitation for the politician to repeat his talking points.

What's Up With Naomi Wolf's Vagina?

Relax, folks. I don’t have any firsthand experience with Naomi Wolf's Vagina, carnal or otherwise. Everything I know about it comes from what other people have told me. And let me tell you, am I ever grateful for those reviews, which tell me I never want to put my hands on it. In fact, as far as I can tell, the entire public purpose of Naomi Wolf, at this point in her brilliant career, is to be the target of other folks’ smart sentences.

Ladies to Watch

I've mentioned here before that I'm an enormous fan of rising young editor Ann Friedman, whom I met when she was both an editor here at the Prospect and was involved in WAM! (Women, Action, and Media). Several people told me she was going to change the world, and I have come to believe it. She left the Prospect to become the editor of GOOD magazine, and made making it a must-read location on the interwebs until the owners of that online community changed its direction and fired most of the editorial staff. Since running a magazine wasn't enough to keep her occupied, she also created many smaller online projects that instantly went viral. 

First Night of the DNC: A TV & Twitter Review

Did you watch it last night? It was an amazing night of TV, of Twitter (that instant snark convo), and of politics. My twitter feed was full of journos saying to each other: Wow, there’s a lot of energy here! Don’t you feel more buzz than in Tampa? I thought this was supposed to be the dispirited convention, but these folks are excited. You could see that in every breakaway shot of the convention floor: Folks were cheering, nodding, yelling back in witness. Over and over again, the Dems boasted proudly about standing up for health care, equal pay, LGBT rights (including the freedom to marry), and yes, reproductive rights, without apology.

The Media Whinefest Commences

Members of the news media arrive at RNC in Tampa, prepare to talk about nothing. (Flickr/NewsHour)

I have a lot of sympathy for campaign reporters. Their time on the trail can be exhausting, a weird combination of high stress and utter boredom. Every day they have to follow their candidate around to another event that was just like the last one, where he'll say exactly the same things, and they have to figure out how to write a story that isn't precisely the same as what they wrote yesterday. And now that their news organizations want them to produce content for a wide array of platforms, it gets even harder.

That being said, reporters can sometimes get seriously whiny. To wit, this story in Politico about how the members of the traveling press corps all think campaign 2012 is a total bummer:

No, National Review. Mitt Romney Is Not a Sex Symbol.

(Flickr/AlaskanLibertarian)

As election season slides into its final stretch, some members of the punditocracy, from lack of sleep and abuse of caffeine, start to lose their minds. Or at least that’s the most generous explanation for how Kevin Williamson came to write—and the editors at National Review came to approve—a bizarre love letter to Mitt Romney that falls somewhere between a hagiography and a letter to Penthouse.

Can Journalists Stand Up to a Candidate's Lies?

Maybe, but probably not.

Flickr/mnwatts

I've made my case that Mitt Romney just might be the most dishonest presidential candidate in modern history, but the question is, what should we do about it? Or more specifically, what should reporters do about it? One of the worst things about "objective" he said/she said coverage is that it basically gives candidates permission to lie by removing any kind of disincentive they might feel for not telling the truth. After all, candidates are (mostly) rational actors, and if lying isn't accompanied by any kind of punishment, they're going to do it as long as it works.

I'm not sure that Mitt Romney's Medicare lies are actually producing a positive effect other than tickling the Republican base deep down in the secret corner of its id, but he's certainly sticking with it. All of which led Prospect alum Garance Franke-Ruta to suggest one possible solution...

Back Off, Masculinity Patrol

This Olympics, we witnessed the results of an American gender revolution. Did you notice all those American women athletes who excelled on the field? As Amanda Marcotte noted here with pride and praise, our gals have clearly shaken off the pressure to overcompensate for their athleticism by playing sweetly feminine off the field.

The Boy Scouts' Learning Curve

(Flickr/David Blumenkrantz)

Since the Sandusky horror story first broke, we’ve seen a lot of articles exposing horrific behavior from the 1970s and 1980s. Serial abuse at the Horace Mann School. Philadelphia sprtswriter Bill Conlin's long history of molesting children. Surely, there are more to come.

Why Mitt Romney Needs to Get His Instagram On

The presumptive nominee should follow in the footsteps of Ayatollah Khameini.

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

To say that Mitt Romney has a "Richie Rich" image problem might just be the political understatement of the century; there is the Romney-residence “car elevator,” Ann’s dressage horses, the bevy of offshore bank accounts, and the fact that some of his dearest friends own NASCAR teams. It ain’t the best time in American history to ooze money from all your orifices, but if you’re going to run for public office while doing so, you might at least desist with the robotic consultant-speak.

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