But wait, you may say. When it comes down to it, aren’t you really arguing for more punditry on TV news? And, well, yes. But advocating more punditry need not, on its own, be journalistic heresy. Because what I’d like to see, specifically, is a kind of PBS-ified punditry: smart, thoughtful, valuable analysis that contextualizes the news. That even—hey, let’s go crazy here—has fun with the news. More news analysis need not, after all, mean less news; more punditry need not mean less reporting. I’m simply arguing for an efficient and intelligent allocation of resources. I have confidence that newspapers and their descendants will continue to develop the mechanisms and the models that will produce, in the aggregate, more reporting—and quality reporting, at that. The citizenry of our digitized future, largely via the Web, will be more informed about our world, not less. But TV shouldn’t cede all reporting to other outlets—again, I’d hope that freedom from the vagaries of the split-second news cycle would leave more reportorial resources for enterprise work—rather, simply the snippet-style reporting required to regurgitate breaking-news stories from the Web.
Nor am I arguing for the blanket PBS-ification of all TV news. Because, first, well, snooze. (Blanket-anything is rarely a good idea, not only because uniformity is unproductive, but also because it’s boring.) And also: networks, obviously, are and should be free to develop their own individual voices. If that inches some closer to the NewsHour and others closer to Inside Edition, well, so be it. But I am saying that much of TV news right now, in its mix of breaking alerts and half-hearted analysis, is somewhat akin to daily helpings of broccoli with Cheez-Whiz, the healthy stuff made more palatable to audiences by virtue of its blanket of neon-tastic ooze. And since the Web already serves up broccoli (rendered, to belabor the metaphor, both tastier and more nutritious to consumers because of the Web’s freshness-assuring packaging), TV news might as well focus on the tasty stuff. And given a choice between Cheez-Whiz and, say—sorry, last metaphor-belaborment—a nice, aged, melted Gouda…wouldn’t most of us prefer the latter?
In other, non-metaphorical, words: Punditry need not be a bad thing. Smart need not equal boring. There’s a way to marry reflective, thoughtful journalism with the personality-driven setup that the modern TV Zeitgeist seems to require. Take, for example, shows like Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. They’re partisan, sure—nakedly so—but ideology, I’d say, is subsidiary to their success. Because in them, overall, you have two informative, entertaining, and smart shows that offer a deliberative and often quite delightful mix of reporting, analysis, criticism, and commentary. Their guests are almost always true experts about a given topic—no “body language experts” in sight—and the hosts are smart enough both to ask good questions and to know how to follow up on them. (Maddow’s October interview with Obama, for example—which focused on wonky details like infrastructure improvement—was perhaps one of the best I’ve seen with the then-candidate.) Watch each show—or even part of each show—and a viewer will come away not only with knowledge of the biggest news stories of the day, but also with a relatively sophisticated sense of why those stories matter. And of how they fit into the greater context of the world.
These hour-long, thoughtful shows are a model that works from a quality-journalism standpoint—and one that, again, from a business perspective, has proven immensely popular with audiences. There are other models, too, of course, for this mix of televised reporting and commentary (The Situation Room, The NewsHour, the generally fantastic Bill Moyers Journal, the soon-to-be-erstwhile Hannity and Colmes, and on and on and on)—and, on the radio, NPR’s overall mix of deep-diving reporting and smart analysis and fun features offers is a fantastic example of how an entire network can use the day’s news as a jumping-off point for more expansive programming. Few of these shows and outlets, however, are as purely entertaining as the MSNBC pundits’ products.