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.
Yet it shouldn’t be commentary uber alles. There are some stories audiences deserve to learn as soon as news producers do. If there’s been a terror attack, for example—or a disaster of any kind, or any bit of important news—by all means, TV news organizations should dust off their BREAKING NEWS chyrons. But break news judiciously; don’t cry wolf with that glaring BN tag. Think of this year’s campaign coverage: Very little of what passed (laughably) as BREAKING NEWS leading up to the election—Breaking: Palin in Pittsburgh! Breaking: McCain to Give a Town Hall in Toledo!—was actually, you know, breaking. (Nor, for that matter, was it really news.) So use anchors and correspondents for a higher purpose. Let the Web handle the dynamic stories, the stories that require constant updates and changes and shifts and corrections. Let television be the home of journalism that is rigorous and well-researched and thoughtful and deeply reported, of journalism that benefits from the editorial restraint that comes from thinking through ideas before they’re aired. Let the Web be about process; let TV be about product.
Tomorrow: part two