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It's Time to Change The Tone of Our 'Politics' Coverage

It's Time to Change The Tone of Our 'Politics' Coverage

By Stuart Rothenberg - June 9, 2009

In May, I made an appearance on "Hardball with Chris Matthews," one of MSNBC's political shows. The segment's main focus was the current state of the Republican Party.

When the segment ended and I walked off the set, I knew that that would likely be my last appearance on "Hardball." I had decided that I would not accept another invitation to appear on the program, should one come.

For those of us who enjoy following politics and are interested in the news, there are fewer and fewer options on television. The Sunday shows and PBS programming - "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," for example - remain, and there are a handful of others worth watching elsewhere (e.g., "Morning Joe" on MSNBC is fun, informative and thoughtful, and CNN and C-SPAN have their moments). But too often, caricature and vitriol have replaced reporting and analysis.

The networks continue to present national news programs each night, but politics can't compete with "American Idol" or "CSI," so cable stations have filled the vacuum with endless hours of what cable executives seem to think constitutes "news" and "politics."

America's cable "news" networks have concluded - on the basis of considerable research and evidence, I'm sure - that most viewers don't want straight news and analysis as much as they want to hear what they already think or to watch predictable partisan attacks.

The three big cable "news" networks don't exist to provide a public service, after all. They have corporate officers and stockholders to answer to, which means they need more and more eyeballs to generate more advertising dollars.

Their answer: talk radio on TV. Forget about the serious implications and political fallout that follow an event or policy, and instead attack your opponents repeatedly using half-truths, glittering generalities and inapplicable analogies. Given the high ratings of Fox News Channel and MSNBC, the cable gurus probably are right. Advocacy has won out over neutrality.

Chris Matthews is a smart, politically astute observer of politics, but my last appearance convinced me that "Hardball" has evolved from a straight political news program with quality guests to one that has more in common with its network's prime-time slant. Like most of the evening programming on MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, "Hardball" has become a partisan, heavily ideological sledgehammer clearly intended to beat up one party and one point of view.

During the show on which I appeared, Matthews referred more than once to Republicans as "Luddites" and took every opportunity imaginable to portray them as crackpots. The show's topics inevitably pander to the most liberal Democratic viewers and present Republicans and conservatives in the least flattering of terms.

I don't mean to single out Matthews for criticism because he actually understands politics and I believe that he would prefer to do a serious political show. Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and the newest addition to MSNBC's unfortunate lineup, Ed Schultz, are far worse than "Hardball."

Depending on your politics, Fox's one-two prime-time punch of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity is either just as bad as the MSNBC crowd or much worse. They can't talk about Democrats without labeling them as socialists or unpatriotic. O'Reilly's obsession with General Electric and that company's CEO is bizarre, though any program that treats Dick Morris seriously as an independent analyst obviously has major problems.

When I surf the channels and pause for a moment on O'Reilly or Hannity, I rarely see guests who aren't openly partisan. But MSNBC's left-leaning shows do use political reporters and columnists who would bridle at the notion that they are ideologues or favor one party over the other. This is particularly true of "Hardball," which at one time seemed to want to fill the void left by the cancellation of CNN's terrific daily political program "Inside Politics."

For all of the talk about blogging and Tweeting, television is still where it's at. TV is still what gets reporters and analysts noticed, making them mini-celebrities. It's hard to turn down any invitation, I guess, and those with network contracts unfortunately don't have the luxury of being able to say no.

Trying to be an unbiased reporter or neutral analyst on a heavily biased television program is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Either you end up fighting the host's premises and rephrasing loaded questions, or you are tacitly accepting the way the host defines a situation, making yourself an accomplice to a political mugging.

Obviously, it isn't up to me to dictate to others who fashion themselves as neutral whether they should appear on these kinds of programs. They wouldn't listen to me anyway, and for some, financial issues or public relations may be overriding considerations.

But I know that I don't want to appear on shows that push a partisan or ideological agenda and that care more about demonizing one point of view than having a real discussion. At the very least, I hope others will take a few moments to consider whether they, too, should appear on these kinds of programs.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper.
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