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 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." We start off with dueling interviews with Obama adviser Robert Gibbs and Romney adviser Ed Gillespie. Were you expecting some candid talk from these two political veterans? Of course you weren't. "If you're willing to say anything to get elected president," Gibbs says about Mitt Romney, "if you are willing to make up your positions and walk away from them, I think the American people have to understand, how can they trust you if you are elected president." Which just happens to be precisely the message of a new Obama ad. What a fascinating coincidence! And you'll be shocked to learn that Gillespie thought Romney did a great job in the debate: "Governor Romney laid out a plan for turning this economy around, getting things moving again. He had a fact-based critique of President Obama's failed policies that the president was unable to respond to." You don't say!
Then we move to the roundtable, featuring, naturally, the stylings of James Carville and Mary Matalin. I just have to know what these two are thinking, because whatever it is, it certainly won't be just "Your guy sucks! No, your guy sucks!" Of course, that's exactly what it will be. Add in Peggy Noonan and her empathic super-powers to determine what the country is feeling and feel it right back at us, Jonathan Karl to repeat some poll numbers and conventional wisdom, and Paul Krugman to grow increasingly exasperated as he attempts without much success to yank the discussion back to reality, and you've got yourself a barn-burner of a debate.
Switch channels, and you'll find some politicians angling for a 2016 presidential nomination come on one of the other Sunday shows to get asked questions about the polls and repeat the same things their co-partisans are saying. If you're lucky (actually, it won't take luck, because you can find it every Sunday), you can watch one of the two party chairs deliver those same messages. Has there ever been a single human being in America who has said, "Wow, that interview with Reince Priebus was really interesting"? Or said the same thing about an interview with Debbie Wasserman Schultz? It's not because they're terrible people, it's because as party leaders their job is to come on the air and spout talking points with maniacal discipline, no matter what they get asked. And they're good at that job. But if you listen to them for a while, it begins to feel like a virus of cynicism is eating its way through your brain.
I wonder what the producers of these shows say to each other as they're putting together their programs. "Hey boss, we locked down Reince Priebus for Sunday!" "Awesome—the show is going to be great!" "I hope Carville and Matalin aren't busy—they'll bring the heat!" "Ooo, you know who we should try for? John McCain! He's only been on our show 12 times this year, and I know people are dying to hear what he has to say."
There could be another way. For instance, "Up With Chris Hayes" on MSNBC shows what the Sunday shows could be. Hayes doesn't bother interviewing politicians or party hacks; instead, he brings on people who know a lot about whatever issue they'll be discussing, aren't constrained by the need to score partisan points, and might have something interesting to say. With a little creativity, you could come up with any number of models for how to make programs that are interesting and informative.
But the Sunday shows don't seem to have any desire to change the 60 festering minutes of crap they splurt through the airwaves every weekend. The three network programs combine for around eight and a half million viewers every week, and I'm sure everyone involved thinks they're a great success.