Thanks for the Talking Points

If you’ve ever watched CNN’s “American Morning,” you’ve likely caught Cliff May and Victor Kamber facing off over the hot political issue of the day. The past and present public relations professionals — May is the former Republican National Committee communications director and Kamber, a Democratic consultant, runs a PR firm — made one of their regular appearances on the program this morning. They were there to discuss President Bush’s speech last night, and did exactly what seasoned political operatives are trained to do: recite partisan talking points, take shots at the opposition, and avoid serious discussion of the issues. We thought we’d highlight the segment because it was particularly substance-free — though we realize that such exchanges on cable news have become all too typical.

Kamber opened by saying he was “disappointed” in the president’s performance. “I wanted to know what he was going to do [in Iraq],” he said. “I wanted to know more.” May, meanwhile, felt that the president was “very specific” — “almost wonkish.” He argued that Bush had said that the American people “are not going to be defeated” in the war. “It’s going to be difficult,” added May, still channeling Bush, “… but we can do this.”

Later, May told the audience that “we are fighting a global war against a ruthless enemy that we have to win.” Kamber then discussed Bush’s “weakness” and asserted that he “has done virtually nothing” in the last year that would constitute leadership. When Kamber argued that Bush should have said in the speech that he’d been talking to world leaders, May said he wanted to know which leaders, adding, “If John Kerry were to put on a beret and take a bottle of merlot and walk over to Paris, it wouldn’t matter.”

We could go on, but you get the point. As we said before, we’re well aware that politicians’ surrogates appearing on television and parroting the party line is nothing new. But this CNN segment was particularly troubling because it was so reminiscent of the “he said/she said” journalism that print reporters too often rely upon. Instead of a meaningful analysis of the speech or a real debate between experts on the issues, CNN let well-trained partisans engage in the kind of angry political back and forth that so often breeds cynicism in viewers.

That may be good for ratings in the short term — whole shows, after all, are built around having ideological opposites attack each other. But we hold the (hopefully not too na´ve) belief that TV news consumers, like their print counterparts, are ultimately more interested in engaging the issues than in manufactured conflict. And if you feed them too much junk food, eventually they’ll get their sustenance somewhere else.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.