Pundit Decies State of Television Punditry

Jonah Goldberg decries the current state political debate on television.

Pungent Pundit B.S. (NRO)

I had a contract with CNN for about four years, which meant I was obliged to be on call for the usual five-minute mini-debates that are a staple on all the news networks. Before that, I committed similar punditry on Fox and MSNBC. On all the networks, but I think particularly on CNN, there’s a habit of pairing opinion journalists with “political consultants” — i.e., party mouthpieces and activists.

I hate the practice because it makes it almost impossible to argue in good faith. I disagree with the Bush administration on a wide number of issues — from immigration policy and “compassionate conservatism” to its grotesque overspending. But it’s very hard to offer a balanced defense when your opponent is shouting that you’re a whore to the GOP and that Bush is a liar with his pants on fire.

Take, for example, what was once CNN’s flagship political program. From 2000 until its recent demise, Crossfire featured Novak and Tucker Carlson on the right vs. Paul Begala and Carville (and before that it was Bill Press, a former Democratic Party operative). You don’t have to be fans of Novak and Carlson to see that they have jobs and backgrounds different from Begala’s and Carville’s. Both Novak and Carlson are journalists — opinion journalists, to be sure, but journalists nonetheless. They speak for nobody but themselves and they have a long-term interest in maintaining their credibility. Obviously, they have views more amenable to conservatives and Republicans, but that’s different from being on the payroll of the Republican party. For example, Novak never supported the Iraq war and Carlson doesn’t now. Carville and Begala, meanwhile, are party operatives and always have been. They were even advisers to the Kerry campaign while still keeping their “analyst” jobs at CNN.

[…]

This is a bipartisan point. CNN and the other networks pair GOP hacks and mouthpieces against liberal journalists all the time, too. As I was told more than once, one of the chief complaints producers had when they put conservative and liberal journalists on was that there was “too much agreement.”

Quite right. Indeed, the heyday of Crossfire was when Michael Kinsley and Pat Buchanan, both professional opinion journalists, were the hosts. The hosts were generally civil to one another and they managed to have general debate because, while both were ideologues, they were both genuine thinkers who were willing to go against the “party line” when they disagreed.

Carville is highly intelligent and by most accounts a truly decent, genial fellow off air. He is often an interesting political commentator, too, when interviewed on others’ shows, especially when he doesn’t have a personal stake in an issue. But he was merely a ranting flack when wearing the “on the Left” hat for Crossfire.

I disagree with Goldberg on one count, though: While Novak is an excellent journalist, he does not play one on television. For whatever reason, he decided long ago that he would play a characature of a hard-nosed Republican curmudgeon on CROSSfiiiirrrrreeeee. His “on the Right” act is only slightly less aggravating than Carville’s “on the Left.”

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.