Television is good at many things, but presenting nuanced opinions generally isn’t high on the list.
Yet journalists and outlets employing them still persist in venturing into the belly of the beast, despite minimal evidence it’s doing most of them the slightest bit of good.
The latest fracas over such cross-pollination involved National Public Radio correspondent (and newspaper vet) Juan Williams getting fired over remarks on Fox News Channel. Milder dustups have touched on New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller and NPR’s Mara Liasson bringing a “level of legitimacy” (as liberal watchdog Media Matters complained) to the same intemperate climes.
As a print journalist, being on TV is nice in theory. Faraway relatives and former school chums get a kick out of it. In terms of tangible benefits, though, that’s usually all it delivers — and the incompatibility between traditional news and cable values keeps triggering flareups like the one that burned Williams and NPR.
For publications, the rewards appear nebulous at best. Newsweek made a point of pushing reporters onto MSNBC and other venues as experts — and came away being corporately dumped for its trouble. Tribune Co. finds itself in a similar predicament, digging out of bankruptcy and mismanagement despite the grand claims regarding TV-newspaper synergies that accompanied its Times Mirror acquisition a decade ago.
Some of that has to do with the Internet cutting the legs out from under both local TV and print. But part of the problem stems from false assumptions about the skills prized by print journalists — reporting, analysis, maybe a pithy turn of phrase — translating to television.
That certainly hasn’t been the case with Kathleen Parker, the Washington Post columnist who increasingly looks like a foundering fish out of water on CNN’s “Parker Spitzer.”
Even in friendly confines — think conservatives on Fox News, or left-leaning Newsweek contributors on MSNBC — reporters can’t help but feel pressure to go for big ideas and bold statements, if only to keep pace with bombastic hosts and the armies of “strategists” sprouting up, zombie-like, to fill demand for nonstop political blather.
The kind of discomfort triggered by partisan venues could be seen on a recent installment of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” as ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper essentially sat there mute for much of the hour (as he subsequently acknowledged), after Maher introduced him by saying, “He was crazy enough to come on our show.”
A more comfortable fit, frankly, can be found on ESPN, where the sports columnists featured on programs like “Around the Horn” usually aren’t TV naturals but at least exhibit the requisite willingness to obsess over matters like whether to computerize ball-and-strike calls.
Admittedly, some print journalists have found second homes and careers on television — think CNN’s Howard Kurtz (formerly of the Washington Post) and Fareed Zakaria (formerly of Newsweek) — although the number successively making that transition is small, and few look completely comfortable. Becoming a TV “brand” also helps sell books for some of those who regularly cross over, which is perhaps a way for print outlets to retain such personnel without having to compensate them more generously.
At best, though, that’s an imprecise formula that accrues to individuals; what such exposure gains newspapers is harder to ascertain. Certainly not higher circulation or a prophylactic against the staff reductions that have strafed their industry.
The real joke in all this, by the way, is the righteous indignation expressed by Fox News toward NPR — assailing a favorite target among commentators on the right for trying to impose journalistic principles of evenhandedness. Yet such is our upside-down media world. (Williams was rewarded by Fox News with a fat contract — and dutifully trashed NPR as a bastion of liberal tyranny, which had to bring a smile to the face of his new full-time home.)
Increasingly reliant on the favorable economics of talking heads, it’s clear what TV channels glean from tapping into the expert-pundit complex: an inexpensive and bountiful source of raw material, with the added patina of respectability that print — or a brand like NPR — conveys.
For those operations, by contrast, the costs associated with feeding TV’s insatiable appetite for drama and conflict often outweigh the rewards — a poor tradeoff that’s easily overlooked amid the blinding glare of those alluring studio lights.