White Noise  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 1999

White Noise   

Polarized views, ample shouting and hardly any meaningful dialogue. Welcome to the high-decibel world of TV's pundit face-offs, which shed lots of heat but not much light on the Clinton/Lewinsky saga.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     



THE STARR REPORT WAS POSTED on the Internet on Friday, September 11. Many newspapers published the full text of the X-rated document over the weekend, and it was the subject of numerous television talkfests. But by the evening of Monday, September 14, there was still plenty left over for pundits to parse.
``When we come back,'' promised Geraldo Rivera, host of CNBC's ``Rivera Live,'' ``our usual impassioned, highly intelligent debate.'' Minutes after the commercial break, the discussion was sizzling among former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, former Bush White House counsel Alan Charles Raul and former Republican counsel Benjamin Ginsberg. It was tag team talk: Dean and Dershowitz vs. Raul and Ginsberg. The combatants, voices raised, were interrupting each other at will, to the point that even the most Monica-addicted viewer could barely determine who was saying what.
Impassioned debate? You bet. Intelligent dialogue? Who could tell?
Two months later, after another development in the marathon Clinton/Lewinsky scandal--the release of taped phone conversations between Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky--there was more grist. Rivera and Chris Matthews, host of CNBC's ``Hardball with Chris Matthews,'' appeared on ``Today'' November 18 with co-host Katie Couric. Rivera is a Clinton defender par excellence; Matthews, although a Democrat, can't attack the president enough.
Couric played some tape, asked the two men to react and jumped out of the way.
Matthews: The American people have...
Rivera: But don't try to put your morality on the American people because...
Matthews: In every... (unintelligible)
Rivera: ...when you speak about the Constitution, you're speaking about what is an elected democracy.
Matthews: Right.
Rivera: And for God's sakes, the people have spoken. How many times do you guys have to get mugged....
Matthews: Let me tell you something....
Rivera: ...before you realize what is...
Matthews: ...the Congress is going to have to rule...
Rivera: Going on.
More impassioned debate between intelligent people. It may well have been informative--if one person had let the other speak. Matthews concedes he doesn't regard this exchange as a professional high point.
Welcome to television's shout culture, where the proliferation of talk shows offers viewers a seemingly endless array of polarized political warfare, ratcheted to the max by a White House dalliance gone public.
``The McLaughlin Group,'' once ridiculed for its high-decibel approach to public affairs, now seems almost tame.
With a few exceptions, brawling pundits used to be hard to find on network television. The political shout shows were largely a cable TV phenomenon, efforts to fill the air time of 24-hour news and talk channels like MSNBC and CNBC and the Fox News Channel. But now the food fights are spilling over onto the networks.
``It started on the cable shows,'' says Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation, ``but it's moved into the newsmagazine formats and `Meet the Press' and others. Many of the shows are now set up as arguments. They are no longer set up as journalistic inquiry.... There's no interest in thoughtful debate.''

RARE ARE REASONED DISCUSSIONS that enlighten or persuade. The weapon of choice is the bludgeon, not the scalpel. In the stylized format that has taken shape during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the unwritten rules specify that one combatant must staunchly support Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and the other must stand up for the president. Debate on other issues is similarly choreographed.
``You are so silly, Vic,'' says a disgusted (Starr defender) Mark Levin on MSNBC's ``Internight with John Gibson'' to his opponent, (Clinton defender) Victor Kamber, the day after Starr's appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. ``You are so silly on this stuff.''
``What you are telling us is a bunch of nonsense,'' former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes says to a Democratic congressman on Fox News Channel's ``Hannity & Colmes.'' The ugly, insult-driven battles are apt to turn off viewers rather than engage them in the political process, trivializing the news by making every conversation a shouting match, every difference of opinion the equivalent of a barroom brawl.
``One of the dangers of programs of this sort is that they convey an impression about politics as being a negative, argumentative forum,'' says former broadcast journalist Marvin Kalb, now director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. ``And politics is a lot more than that. And a lot more serious than that.''
Not only has television's argument culture Jerry Springerized civic debate, it has also played a key role in disseminating a wealth of misinformation that takes on a life of its own ``out there.'' Respected media outlets such as the New York Times or ABC News, for example, may turn out carefully reported, responsibly edited stories. Yet some pundits--many of them journalists--jettison all restraint when they appear on TV. You'll hear them utter ``I heard that...'' or ``I think that...'' or pop off on some topic far from their areas of expertise or mischaracterize a perfectly valid story they read in the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post.
The cumulative effect of such barrages is a public left hopelessly confused about what is true. ``The biggest damage being done is not just losing viewers but to our democracy, because people aren't being informed,'' says Deborah Tannen, author of the recent book ``The Argument Culture.'' ``If you reduce everything to two sides fighting, you aren't exploring anything. People aren't getting the information they need. It also promotes a real cynicism about the political process.''
The argument culture is also a cottage industry that provides ample work for the pundits it transforms into instant celebrities. Names little known a year ago, like the ones belonging to George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley or Washington, D.C., lawyer Barbara Olson, quickly become familiar, at least to political junkies and cable TV addicts, thanks to frequent appearances on political chat shows.
With so much air time to fill on cable, producers often scramble to find pundits. It shouldn't be that difficult. Television confers a celebrity status that most journalists and others in the punditocracy find irresistible. And if they are good, i.e., provocative and pugnacious, they are asked back. Soon they are sought out by other shows' producers who have seen them in action. But guests are likely to receive repeat invitations only if they are vociferous shouters who are at home in a circus-like atmosphere. Subtlety, nuance and moderation are not valued in this rough terrain.
While legal pundits, as in the O.J. Simpson era, have been particularly hot in the season of Clinton and Lewinsky, journalists are valued as voices of reason, talk show producers say. But once the cameras start rolling, many of them can't help revealing their opinions rather than sticking to the facts.
When they show up on the tube, pundits are often identified in ways that don't do much to explain where they are coming from. Alan Charles Raul, for example, often is identified as a former White House counsel. But for which White House? (He worked for President Bush and represented President Reagan during the Iran-contra controversy.) Barbara Olson is sometimes listed as a former independent counsel with no indication that she's a close friend of Ken Starr.
Cable shows reach a relatively small audience--only 198,000 households tuned in to MSNBC's ``The Big Show with Keith Olbermann'' in October 1998, compared to millions who might watch NBC's ``Meet the Press.'' But both ``The Big Show'' and another nightly Olbermann offering, ``The White House in Crisis,'' focused on the Clinton/Lewinsky matter relentlessly night after night, when there were major developments and when there weren't.
Viewers who encounter such fare are likely to get the impression that the ``crisis'' is much more serious than it actually is at that precise moment. ``Every night when you are channel surfing, there they are, the pundits, every night yammering away,'' says Michael Kelly, editor of National Journal. ``It adds to the sense of being besieged.'' With dozens of news shows to fill on MSNBC, Fox, CNN and CNBC, as well as the Sunday morning network talk shows, the Starr report and impeachment developments are certain to have long shelf lives.
``Cable news shows keep certain stories alive that have been flogged to death,'' says Craig Crawford, editor in chief of the Hotline, an online political newsletter.
MSNBC's Phil Griffin, executive producer of ``The Big Show'' and ``Internight,'' declined to discuss the pundit phenomenon, saying through a spokesperson that he was too busy.
Cory Shields, MSNBC's vice president for communications, acknowledges that the network has been criticized for its saturation coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. ``It's important to remember that while we spend hours on a major story, the average viewer tunes in for approximately 20 minutes at a time,'' he says. ``Viewers dip in and dip out. But when they're watching, they want news on the big story. Nobody watches for five hours straight.''
But it may be that viewers eventually overdose on the constant belaboring of any story, no matter how juicy. ``If there's a fight outside, you'll run to the window and stick your head out to see what is happening,'' Tannen says. ``But if there's a fight every night, you close the window and do your best to shut it out.''

FOR 16 YEARS AFTER ITS JUNE 1, 1980, debut, the Cable News Network had the 24-hour, all-news cable business to itself. Over the years CNN introduced political talk shows, enlarging the small pool of journalists and other experts who appeared on television as pundits. The punditocracy existed in the early 1990s, but it was a small club. Within a few years, though, the phenomenon was beginning to set off some alarm bells.
The landscape changed dramatically on July 15, 1996, when Microsoft and NBC launched MSNBC, a 24-hour cable news network and Internet service now available on cable in about 44 million homes. Later that year, on October 7, Fox News Channel was born; it now reaches about 35 million homes. (CNN and CNN International, by contrast, can be seen in more than 900 million households in more than 212 countries.)
The cable phenomenon is clearly taking off. Nielsen ratings for MSNBC and Fox News Channel are going nowhere but up. For example, the audience for ``The Big Show'' was 148 percent larger in October 1998 than it was a year before, says MSNBC senior publicist Kyle Kaino. The number of households tuned in to MSNBC prime time shows that month was 137 percent higher than the year before.
Fully 40 percent of Americans now consistently get their news from cable, compared to 57 percent who regularly get it from network news broadcasts, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
It would be reasonable to assume the rise of cable news would be good for public discourse. While the networks might opt for silly sitcoms, the cable channels should have plenty of time for thoughtful, intelligent discussions and in-depth reports on current events and important issues. But the reality, of course, is something very different.
``I'm one of the main complainers about there being no time for news,'' says S. Robert Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. ``But now there's more time than real news to fill it. The result is a proliferation of pseudo news, people talking about public affairs whether they know anything about it or not.''
One of the cheapest and easiest ways to fill air time is with political talk shows. ``If you enjoy infotainment and the veneer of news and the essence of gossip, the 24-hour-a-day cable shows are God's gift to you,'' Kalb says. ``It is on those 24-hour-a-day cable operations that the premise that talk is the cheapest form of entertainment is tested and found to be true.''
Entertainment, but not necessarily illumination. The talk on the shows is about who won or who needs to win, who's up and who's down. It's Starr vs. Clinton; good guy vs. bad guy; Republican vs. Democrat. And sometimes whoever yells loudest wins.
``In fairness, the producers are looking for people with opposing views,'' says Olson, a regular on the Clinton/Lewinsky circuit because of her credentials (Travelgate and Filegate independent counsel), her politics (Republican) and her social circle (friend of Starr). ``The ideal, and I do believe they try for this, is to have two people with opposing views and have a good debate about those views. That's where this medium can be very good.... What gets frustrating is when people lie about the facts or give it such a spin that they are putting false information out there.''
But the spin is what producers seem to love. Polarized points of view fuel the culture of conflict that's so pervasive. ``The shows are very conflict-oriented, and they perpetuate the conflict without ever trying to work through or resolve a conflict,'' says Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. ``When we frame everything as an argument, it alienates people.''
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor with a background in constitutional, criminal and environmental law, has become such a fixture in television's argument culture that both the New York Times and the Washington Post felt compelled to write stories essentially asking: Who is Jonathan Turley and where did he come from? Turley is one of the true overnight sensations of talk television, propelled out of obscurity by the Clinton/Lewinsky story.
While he believes there are substantial issues that should be explored, Turley says, ``there's a tendency with all popular media to turn all issues into personal contests to the point where these programs can look like legal mud-wrestling.'' He says that while he is typecast as Starr's guy, he doesn't back the independent counsel 100 percent--he is, after all, a liberal Democrat--and finds it frustrating that producers don't like it when he agrees with Starr's critics. ``On most of the heated programs, there's an absence of flexibility or acknowledgment of ambiguity,'' Turley says.
MSNBC, in particular, has boosted its ratings by striving to become the all-Monica, all-the-time network. Its most prominent vehicle in this effort was ``The Big Show with Keith Olbermann.'' Olbermann recently left the pundit wars to become an anchor on cable's Fox Sports Net (see Bylines, December 1998).
Olbermann's competition at the 8 p.m. EST time slot included CNBC's Matthews and Fox News Channel's ``The O'Reilly Factor,'' where one quickly learns how abhorrent the president is in the eyes of outspoken host Bill O'Reilly. When Newsweek contributing editor Eleanor Clift, a tireless Clinton defender, appeared on his program, O'Reilly attacked her, saying the president was ``corrupt, and I don't understand intelligent people like you continuing to prop up a corrupt politician.''
Eric Alterman, who wrote a book critical of the punditocracy before the cable explosion, thinks things have gotten worse. All-news television, he says, has driven down the level of public discourse. But while discussion on cable shows is often ``low rent compared to network punditocracy, these shows have put the fear of death into the networks because the networks are losing market share, and they think they have to go in the same direction as cable.''
At the same time, he adds, the cable talk onslaught has ``taught people not to take stuff seriously, particularly political stuff.... And the effect of the overkill and the oversimplification of complicated issues is to turn the public off.''

ONE OF THE TRUE DANGERS OF ENDLESS blather on talk television is that pundits can, and too often do, say anything they want--whether it's true or not. In the writing process, most journalists are forced to stop and think: Can I really back that up? Is the person who said this qualified to make this claim? And if they don't ask those questions, their editors often will. But on the shout show circuit, a rumor is often given the same weight as a fact.
In October, the Committee of Concerned Journalists released a study concluding that much of the original reporting on the Clinton/Lewinsky story by the mainstream media held up pretty well. ``The distortions in the Clinton/Lewinsky story frequently came from the talking heads on the cable shows,'' says Jim Doyle, who oversaw the report.
Take, for instance, the unsubstantiated rumor that Clinton may have been involved with a second intern, not to mention a third, fourth and fifth. Two days after the Lewinsky story broke last January, Republican strategist, attorney and pundit Ann Coulter appeared on ``Rivera Live.'' Rivera asked if she thought it was ``sleazy'' that Lewinsky had been detained for ``eight to nine hours without an attorney present.'' Coulter responded that she didn't think that was nearly as bad as ``the president of the United States using her to service him, along with four other interns.''
Two days later, on ``Meet the Press,'' moderator Tim Russert asked cybergossip Matt Drudge about the same subject. ``There's talk all over this town another White House staffer is going to come out from behind the curtains this week,'' Drudge replied. ``There are hundreds, hundreds, according to Miss Lewinsky, quoting Clinton....''
``What's happened is the all-Monica, all-the-time cable news shows have infected ABC and NBC,'' Doyle says. ``You have Drudge on and Russert asking him questions on a show with 40 or more years of distinguished Sunday morning journalism; that's a head turner. He's part of the story, but when you ask him the same questions that Ann Coulter is putting out on `Rivera Live,' then you've sunk to that level of journalism.''
The ``second intern'' vanished for months, only to re-emerge when CNBC's Matthews brought the subject up again in August on ``Hardball,'' setting off another flurry. The New York Post reported that the Washington Post's Bob Woodward was ``about to break a big exclusive about a second White House intern.'' But in the end, there was nothing in the Starr report or anywhere else about another Clinton paramour.
``This was a rumor that was given life in journalism through the cable shows,'' says Doyle, ``through the talking heads and through people who supposedly know better. It's an astounding practice of journalism.''
Astounding or not, few can resist the siren song of talk TV (although many who appear avoid rumor and innuendo). Why would a reporter for the New York Times or the Washington Post appear on cable shows that attract far smaller audiences than their papers do?
Kalb says he knows why so many journalists, not to mention lawyers and legal scholars, can't say no. In the case of journalists, he cites three reasons: ego; money (while most appearances are unpaid, some pundits have contracts with a network or are retained for a day to act as an expert, and the exposure can lead to lucrative speaking fees); and sources (a source who sees you on TV may call with a good story).
Kalb adds that television is very seductive. The spell begins to take hold when a limousine picks you up and delivers you to a makeup artist. ``If you have makeup,'' says Kalb, ``you are one step toward your performance. Then there's waiting in the green room where a young, energetic producer runs in saying: `Three minutes.' '' Then it's showtime.
But sometimes the show is carefully scripted. This summer, media analyst Tim Graham received a telephone call from an MSNBC producer. Graham works for the Media Research Center, which prides itself on exposing liberal bias in the press. The producer for ``News Chat'' with John Gibson wanted Graham to appear on a segment about ``South Park,'' Comedy Central's popular cartoon where vulgarity is prized. Graham was interested. He hates the show and told the producer he'd never let his children watch it. He ticked off what he found particularly offensive. Later the producer called back. ``Would you be willing to say that you wanted the show banned from the airwaves?'' she asked. Graham couldn't go that far.
The apologetic producer said she needed someone who could. So instead, says Graham, she turned to Bob Peters of Morality in Media, who did want the show tossed off the air. ``When they go into the booking process, they look for polarizing,'' says Graham.
MSNBC's Shields notes that in a six-minute segment, which is how the show is often put together, it's important to have have both sides represented and ``if someone is middle of the road, you might not get the balance needed.''
While the pundit circuit can turn an obscure lawyer, academic or journalist into a semi-name overnight, not everyone wants to play. ``Hell, no, I don't go on them,'' says National Journal's Kelly. ``You have this great maw that has to be filled. It can't be filled with facts. There aren't enough facts. It can't be filled with wisdom, because there are not enough wise people around. And it can't be filled with cleverness, because cleverness is hard to come by. So it's filled with blatherers. Blather by itself is dull. So the impetus is to produce a specific kind of blather--outrageous blather. It's not the greatest threat the republic has ever faced. But it is part of the general trashification of everything.''
Matthews might take issue with Kelly. He'd agree that other shows are just filling time, but not his. His is different, he says, because he feels passionately about politics and having each show deal with the question: What kind of a country do we want to live in? He also agrees that when four heads are shouting, guests are forced to talk faster, louder and fight to be heard. ``That's something we have to modulate,'' Matthews notes.
``Whenever there is passion, it's very important that the argument be heard above the din,'' he adds. ``It's all right to have passion, but if only the din is heard, it's a failure.''

IF YOU'VE GOT THE WILL AND THE SKILL, you can practically make a career appearing on cable news shows. Just look at Jonathan Turley and Barbara Olson.
Olson felt so strongly about defending Starr, on television and in other forums, that she quit her job as general counsel for Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.). In a three-day period around the time Starr testified before the House Judiciary Committee, Olson's schedule went something like this: On Thursday, November 19, she appeared all day as a paid legal analyst for MSNBC in Washington, D.C., near her Virginia home. That night, she did ``Larry King Live'' on CNN. Friday morning, she flew to Los Angeles to appear on ABC's ``Politically Incorrect'' and then did ``Larry King Live'' again that night, this time from Los Angeles. She caught a red-eye back to Washington, arriving at 5:44 a.m. in time to appear on NBC's ``Today.''
Why has she devoted so much time to television punditry? ``I really do believe in my political views,'' Olson says. ``I've been friends with Ken Starr and his family for a long time. When he started being attacked and really vilified, it makes me happy to be able to go on shows and say, `You don't know the facts. And you don't know the person.' ''
Turley says he's not as eager to appear on camera as many think. In fact, he's reached a position where he can pick and choose. ``I've been critical of some programs,'' he says, ``and some programs I simply won't go on. I just don't like being overly negative. I ask for prior agreement on any guests.... I avoid the legal dog fighting shows where issues tend to get lost in a contest of individuals.''
Turley and Olson may opt to remain pundits, but one person who will no longer be requesting their presence is Olbermann. He made it clear last May he was uneasy with a format that depended so heavily on the Lewinsky scandal. In fact, he told Cornell University graduates, there were days when his work made him ashamed and depressed.
Since January 21, he said, ``virtually every night, for an hour, sometimes two, I have presided over discussions about this stuff so intricate, so repetitive, that it has assumed the characteristics of the medieval religious scholars arguing for months and even years over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. At first I genuinely believed this was a relevant matter for fairly constant discussion.... But as the weeks have gone by, it has become more and more clear to me that there is no moral force at work in this process, whatsoever. Nobody is doing the right thing.''
Olbermann left ``The Big Show'' in December, partially, he says, because he missed sportscasting. But it was also because he had grown weary of pitting gladiators against one another rather than conducting conversations.
``The stridency was intolerable,'' he says. ``I think my affection for sports news would have won out in the end if Monica Lewinsky had never been born. But I did feel uncomfortable being part of this dialogue.''

###