Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Polarization of Television / Goodbye Crossfire

On Vaughn Ververs' update this morning on Washington Journal he talked about how CNN President Jon Klein is putting the kibosh on the show Crossfire. This is from Howard Kurtz's article on the matter:

"CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein sided yesterday with comedian Jon Stewart, who used a "Crossfire" appearance last fall to rip the program as partisan hackery. 'I think he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day,' Klein said in an interview. Viewers need 'useful' information in a dangerous world, he said, 'and a bunch of guys screaming at each other simply doesn't accomplish that.'"

But the fact of the matter is that Crossfire just wasn't getting good enough ratings, because other channels are doing the screaming louder and better. This parallels the whole change in daytime talk shows that occurred when the Jerry Springer show broke on the scene. Shows like Oprah couldn't compete with that kind of absurdity so they actually had to go in the other direction, towards a more sensitive, self-help oriented style of television.

So in a way, that could be Fox News' gift to the world, doing over-the-top partisan hackery better than anyone else, thereby forcing other stations to give up on that format and put on more sensible programming.

But that seems like a scary direction to me, because then the argumentative side of television is just going to focus even more on drama and less on substance. Then you will end up with a whole population of people getting their information from shows with almost no connection to reality. At least Crossfire was half-debate, half-professional wrestling.

And the polarization of television news could lead to the polarization of television viewers, which is something that we already kind of have. I mean, take a person who watches Fox News a couple hours a day and a person who watches C-SPAN a couple hours a day. Are those people even going to be talking the same language? Is there even going to be enough common ground for them to reasonably discuss the issues that America faces?

In a lot of ways, a conservative and a liberal that both watch C-SPAN probably have more in common than a conservative that watches C-SPAN and a conservative that watches Fox News.

I wonder what democracy would be like if everyone was well-informed.

Another thought: I am resigned to the fact that people screaming on television will tend to draw more viewers than people not screaming. I don't think CNN should abandon screaming as a format, I think they should just make the screaming more intelligent. Screaming and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. Imagine a boring biology teacher and one who is always screaming; while you will certainly be more entertained by the screaming bio teacher, it is quite possible that you could also learn more biology from him too.

What about a show where two pundits square off in a dramatic debate, yelling as much as they want, but then at the conclusion of the argument a panel of professors judge their performance, based on their logic and their use of facts. It would be just like a boxing match, where each round was scored based on how many blows were actually landed.

Yeah, that's a show I would watch! Because then you have the excitement of the confrontation added to the final consensus of experts in the field. Plus, as people watch the show more and more they will start to learn how to actually judge the merits of an argument. Someone please make this show. "Mental Boxing: Louder AND Smarter." Everyone would watch it. You could have a "winner stays on" approach where every day someone new gets a shot at the title. You could have "tag team" matches. You could have an "internet sidekick" who looks up facts for you while you're arguing. What's not to love? It would be the "Iron Chef" of political debate shows!


jj mollo said...

I think this is a great idea. It would be like the House of Commons. Question Time with Tony Blair can get very exciting, but still informative. Question time with Rumsfeld tends to be very amusing, but not very informative.

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