It’s okay being an old man. You remember things without the boring parts, like Sundays long ago, and the routine. Pittsburgh, 1959, and one of those gray winter Sunday mornings (they were all gray) – and driving home from church in the city to the tract home in the suburban hills, in the big green Chrysler with the fins. When you’re twelve, well, cars like that impress you. And when you get home there will be the big Sunday dinner in late afternoon, so the house will be filled with the smell of roast beef and fresh bread. And it’s a slow day – on the way home there’s the stop for the hefty Sunday New York Times and another stop to pick up the eccentric uncle for his visit. Yeah, he’s strange – he drinks too much and reads odd foreign books and hasn’t worked in years and has all those Duke Ellington records that he plays too loud – but he’s family. So everyone settles into the Sunday afternoon, grabbing their own section of the Times – dad the business section, mom the glossy Sunday Magazine, the older brother the sports section, the uncle the Book Review – leaving the Week in Review and the odds and ends to the rest of us. And it gets quiet and peaceful. And in the back room the uncle has put on that Ellington thing, Come Sunday – and that infinitely peaceful and strangely sad song fits the day.
Then it will be dinner, and some homework for some of us, then Ed Sullivan on the black-and-white television in its big cabinet, and then the day is over. It was the late fifties, after all. Those were the days when things moved slowly, and information moved glacially. The news was still news two or three days later. You had time to think about things, and that’s what those Sunday afternoons were for. You caught up on what had happened where, in detail, and considered what the Times folks said it all might mean. And there was little alternative – the local newspapers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, were painfully local, and the national network television news just a scant half-hour each weekday evening, and no one had thought up news radio yet, much less talk radio. And there was no internet, just the twenty-six volume encyclopedia no one ever touched, but looked impressive.
Yes, it’s a wonder any of us knew anything of what was going on in the world. But we all did. You just had to dig deep for it. School really mattered back then, obviously, as did what you could learn from actual people who you thought knew things – the architect next door, the music teacher who’d gone to Julliard and married one of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes and played in the Pittsburgh Symphony now, or the guy down the street who came back from business trips to odd places, like Milan or Oslo. It seems those were real places. And there were the movies that took you places and the music – people were starting to sing about surfing out here in California. But you had to assemble the world beyond Pittsburgh. It wasn’t handed to you. You just hoped you got it right. And having a globe handy was useful. They weren’t just decorative back then.
That was fifty years ago, but it might as well have been another planet in another universe. There’s that new book about 1959 – Fred Kaplan saying that 1959 was the year that changed everything. He may be right, because that was the year the microchip was introduced, and cheap tiny integrated circuits led to personal computers for everyone, and to the internet, and to a flood of information, and misinformation, and opinion, and images, and video, of most everything, everywhere, along with maps and “street views” and all that. Who needs the Sunday Times now? Do you want to know the big issue in rural Portugal that surfaced in the last ten minutes? That’s a click or two away. So is the analysis of six or seven brilliant economists, explaining just why you’re losing your job, and then your house, and the economic theory of why such things are happening to people like you, and what we can do about that. And of course news is breaking all the time, all over you.
And it’s not just what’s on the web. Now there are the twenty-four hour cable news networks, and news radio – give us twenty-two minutes and we’ll give you the world – and talk radio – discussion of each and every event, with attitude, and with folks calling in to argue one way or the other. And no one much cares about the national network television news’ scant half-hour each weekday – broadcast news, not cable. That’s useless – just topic highlights. And newspapers only survive as the research arm for all the rest – they have reporters who go find out things and dig up the essential details and uncover what’s really happening and who is doing what, when, where and how. Someone’s got to do it. But few folks now read the newspapers. They prefer cable news reports of what’s been reported, and on the web, a comprehensive review of what’s been reported from many sources, with analysis of its implications. So you see a Washington Post or a New York Times reporter on cable, explaining what they’ve reported in their newspaper, because few are actually reading the newspaper. Yes, actual reporting is expensive, as you have to send people places, and keep them there, and investigative reporting even more expensive, and if no one is buying the newspapers, so advertisers see no point in buying display ads, and between Craig’s List and eBay there’s no need for newspaper want ads, which used to be where most of the real income was, they may not be able to do that much longer. That may be unsustainable. Then what? The whole edifice collapses. It’s collapsing now.
And of course Sundays have been ruined. The Sunday New York Times is now source material – the raw ingredients for a gourmet meal, not the meal itself. Someone on CNN or Fox or MSNBC will open with “in a stunning story the New York Times reported today that…” You don’t need the newspaper, or if you do want to read the original source material, it’s available at the Times’ website. Yep, the webpage is festooned with ads for this and that you can click on. No one does that. They’re barely scraping by. And the Los Angeles Times is shrinking again – it’ll soon be gone.
And the Sunday morning talk shows have become absurd. See Jay Rosen’s Public Notebook:
Look, the Sunday morning talk shows are broken. As works of journalism they don’t work. And I don’t know why this is so hard for the producers to figure out.
The people who host and supervise these shows, the journalists who appear on them, as well as the politicians who are interviewed each week, are all quite aware that extreme polarization and hyper-partisan conflict have come to characterize official Washington, an observation repeated hundreds of times a month by elders in the Church of the Savvy. Ron Brownstein wrote a whole book on it: The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America.
See his item on the Church of the Savvy for an explanation of how these shows are insiders speaking to each other, and the Brownstein book can be found here. But more to the point he continues with this:
If the observation is true, then inviting partisans on television to polarize us some more would seem to be an obvious loser, especially because the limited airtime compresses political speech and guarantees a struggle for the microphone. This pattern tends to strand viewers in the senseless middle. We either don’t know whom to believe, and feel helpless. Or we curse both sides for their distortions. Or we know enough to know who is bullshitting us more and wonder why the host doesn’t. I can think of no scenario in which Brownstein can be correct and the Sunday shows won’t suck. (Can you?)
It’s remarkable to me how unaware someone like David Gregory appears to be about all this. He acts as if lending stage to extreme partisanship, and then “confronting” each side with one or two facts it would prefer to forget, is a perfectly fine solution. But then he also acts like his pathetic denialism about the adequacy of press performance as Bush made his case for war is sustainable, normal, rational. (“I think the questions were asked. I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president.”) Maybe he thinks we buy that. Or forgive him. Or something.
Rosen has his solution:
In fact the whole Sunday format has to be re-thought, or junked so the news divisions can start over with a new premise. Of course the problem is that the people who would have to make that decision are the same people whose entire knowledge base and skill set lies in producing the “old” style of political television. That is what they know, so that is what they continue to do. I guess it’s not hard to understand complacency of this kind. But do they really think we don’t notice the growing absurdity of bringing to a common table people who agree on nothing?
I think the situation calls for cynicism. But I have to admit that is not much of a call. So instead I propose this modest little fix, first floated on Twitter in a post I sent out to Betsy Fischer, Executive Producer of Meet the Press, who never replies to anything I say. “Sadly, you’re a one-way medium,” I said to Fischer, “but here’s an idea for ya: Fact check what your guests say on Sunday and run it online Wednesday.”
Now I don’t contend this would solve the problem of the Sunday shows, which is structural. But it might change the dynamic a little bit. Whoever was bullshitting us more could expect to hear about it from Meet the Press staff on Wednesday. The midweek fact check (in the spirit of Politifact.com, which could even be hired for the job…) might, over time, exert some influence on the speakers on Sunday. At the very least, it would guide the producers in their decisions about whom to invite back.
The midweek fact check would also give David Gregory a way out of his puppy game of gotcha. Instead of telling David Axelrod that his boss promised to change the tone in Washington so why aren’t there any Republican votes for health care? … which he thinks is getting “tough” with a guest, Gregory’s job would simply be to ask the sort of questions, the answers to which could be fact checked later in the week. Easy, right?
And here’s Rosen’s pitch:
The beauty of this idea is that it turns the biggest weakness of political television – the fact that time is expensive, and so complicated distortions, or simple distortions about complicated matters, are rational tactics for advantage-seeking pols – into a kind of strength. The format beckons them to evade, deny, elide, demagogue and confuse…. but then they pay for it later if they give into temptation and make that choice. So imagine the midweek fact check from last week as a short segment wrapping up the show the following week. Now you have an incentive system that’s at least pointed in the right direction.
Well, that’s an idea. It doesn’t get us back to the pleasant days of 1959, but it’s a start.
But none of this has to do with reading real reporting on a quiet Sunday afternoon and thinking about what it implies. It has to do with some blatant nonsense, as CNN’s Sunday show – “State of the Union” – was touting its amazing line-up for the Sunday, January 10, show:
This week, [host John King’s] exclusive guests are Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) LIVE from Jerusalem. We’ll get their insight on the foiled airline terror plot and President Obama’s strategy on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Steve Benen comments:
Hmm, McCain and Lieberman, talking together about foreign policy and national security. Now that’s a balanced pairing.
But just as important, note that we haven’t quite reached the first anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration, and John McCain is on yet another Sunday morning talk show. And you know what that means – it’s time to update the big board.
This will be John McCain’s 18th appearance on a Sunday morning talk show since Obama took office 12 months ago. That’s an average of one appearance every 2.9 weeks for a year – more than any other public official in the country.
Since the president’s inauguration, McCain has been on “Meet the Press” three times (December 6, July 12, and March 29), “This Week” three times (September 27, August 23, and May 10), “Face the Nation” four times (October 25, August 30, April 26, and February 8), and “Fox News Sunday” four times (December 20, July 2, March 8, and January 25). His appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” tomorrow will be his fourth (January 10, October 11, August 2, and February 15).
Benen wonders why McCain:
He’s the one who lost the 2008 presidential race badly, and is now just another reactionary conservative senator in the minority. He’s not in the party leadership; he has no role in any important negotiations on any issue; and he’s offered no significant pieces of legislation. By all appearances, McCain isn’t even especially influential among his own GOP colleagues.
There’s just no reason for the media’s obsession with McCain. None. Eighteen Sunday-show appearances in 12 months? It’s farcical.
Well, yes it is. But things have changed since 1959 in many ways. Come Sunday there’s no news. And take it from an old man. There used to be.