News skills less important than looks, ability to argue

Add to the list of jobs everyone thinks they can do — alongside football coach, TV critic and president of the United States — a fast-rising newcomer: Cable news host.

Only in that last case, they might actually be right.

Broadcast jobs have always welcomed people with experience playing the game. The revolving door includes players and coaches in sports, and former politicians and functionaries in news. Generally, though, they have been cast as analysts as opposed to being asked to carry entire programs, or gradually ascended to those roles, such as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

Radio hosts like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow have also made the natural transition to TV — especially in the opinion realm — as have some print journalists, a la Piers Morgan. If nothing else, those backgrounds train someone to ask the right questions, and listen to answers.

More recently, though, cable channels have exhibited an eclectic diet, with a special fondness for trial attorneys. There also seems to be scant apprehension about on-the-job training, with people being thrust almost directly into hosting roles.

Hence, prosecutor-turned-politician Eliot Spitzer is getting his second stab at primetime via Current, replacing Keith Olbermann. He joins former attorneys like Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly and HLN’s fire-breathing Nancy Grace; and a fellow ex-governor, Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm, who follows him on Current.

MSNBC has expanded its hiring pool by giving shows to Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane U. professor; and political activist Al Sharpton, whose campaigning in connection with the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin has ignited debate among journalists about its propriety, not that anyone at the network appears to be listening, having pooh-poohed such concerns.

The appetite for lawyers is perhaps the most illustrative aspect of TV’s priorities. Trial attorneys are taught to make arguments, a talent perfectly suited to a business that has become increasingly argumentative, as well as increasingly preoccupied with sensational crimes.

Indeed, whatever challenges the job market might present, there has never been a better time professionally for women who couldn’t decide between careers as lawyers or runway models. As sexist as that might sound, TV is all about optics, and the cable news channels — particularly Fox News — have exhibited a serious appetite for telegenic young women with legal backgrounds, who can articulately debate cases and look great doing so. Or as GQ headlined a sexy 2010 photo spread of Fox’s Kelly, “She Reports, We Decided She’s Hot.”

At the same time, a background in TV news is no longer necessarily the preferred path to these wider platforms — a scenario exacerbated by the desiccated nature of local TV news, where many operations have been pared down to bare bones.

Some traditional journalists have nevertheless expressed chagrin about these trends. MSNBC’s deal with Sharpton in 2011, for example, triggered questions from members of the National Assn. of Black Journalists, citing “another non-journalist media ‘celebrity’ receiving a TV show based upon their name recognition, not their years of experience, training, ability and talent.”

Still, these jobs aren’t as easy as they might appear from the safety of one’s couch. For every natural like Maddow or Kelly, there’s someone who looks chronically uncomfortable, can’t find the camera or has trouble condensing thoughts into TV-sized sound bytes.

To understand the gap, try watching Granholm or Spitzer, who — based on a sampling of his first few nights replacing Olbermann — is clearly smart and opinionated, but occasionally indulges in lengthy monologues before ever getting around to posing a question or involving his guest.

Being a frequent guest, it turns out, also doesn’t necessarily equip someone to hold an audience’s attention for an hour, day after day. The most accomplished practitioners of that art are disappearing, which explains why Regis Philbin signing off was treated as such an event, and CBS keeps renewing David Letterman’s deal, no matter how cranky he is.

In one respect, the gradual handover of cable news to non-news people and promising amateurs, especially attorneys, might be a perfect metaphor for the excesses of the industry. It is, after all, a world where the rules now favor those willing to shoot their mouths off first, and endlessly ask questions later.

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