In Defense of Talk Show Politics
Scarcely a day goes by without some new commentary lamenting the dubious impact late night comedy and the daytime talk shows are having on the informationally-impoverished American electorate. In essence, the critique goes like this: These programs have no pith, no substance! The jokes rely on caricatures and stereotypes! These entertainers (the word intoned with a revulsion intended to send you scurrying for the nearest bottle of antiseptic) throw softballs. It's not real information.
Traipse down Memory Lane for just a moment and you'll recall having heard echoes of this breast-beating all the way back to 1992 when Clinton donned his RayBans and belted out an Elvis tune on Arsenio. This year, Bob Dole is a political commentator for The Daily Show on Comedy Central, one of several cable channels that provided more convention coverage than the networks. Oprah opened her season with an hour-long program with Al Gore. Bush got his 60 minutes with the Queen of Daytime the following week. Both major party candidates have chatted with Dave Letterman. Bush even stopped by Regis' show last week.
It's true that late night talk show opening monologues peg candidates monodimensionally. Clinton's a womanizer. Gore is stiff. Bush is (two choices here) a cokehead or just plain dumb. But the interviews with the candidates as conducted by Letterman, Leno or Oprah often offer far more of interest than any reporter seems prepared to concede.
What actually happens in these interviews? Although some may be utterly empty -- the one with Regis may well qualify -- assuming that if an interview isn't conducted by a "real journalist" it's necessarily going to be crap, reflects a bad case of professional protectionism.
In the case of Oprah's interviews with Gore and Bush, Oprah was explicitly trying to give her audience a sense of who these men were. "Who do you trust?" she asked. But judging by news accounts, that silly little thing -- trust -- isn't appropriate criteria for the American electorate. Today's thinking American is expected to be a kind of citizen-policy wonk with an intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of every issue on the political agenda.
For better or worse, that's not how most real Americans vote most of the time. Nor has it been. Ever. And it's not just the dumb, uninformed, uneducated voters who vote like that. It's me and my friends who voted for John McCain this spring. Did we vote for him because we agreed with him on abortion and gun control? I don't think so. We voted for him because he seemed like a good honest guy who had some integrity.
We can aspire to remake humankind till we're blue in the face, but I'm mighty skeptical about the short-term or the long-term prospects. So, at least as far as most voters are concerned, Oprah's interviews with the candidates turn out to be more helpful than any New York Times piece about Bush/Gore plans for social security. And often, I might add, considerably more interesting.
Oprah asked Bush all kinds of questions that would be deemed irrelevant by the political-journalistic establishment. She not only asked him about his favorite song ("Wake Up Little Suzie"), a fact noted in many of the news accounts about the interview, she asked him whether government has a soul and what is love. These are questions I actually want to hear him answer, because I'm convinced his answers will reflect the kind of president he makes. You can bet that Josiah Bartlet on West Wing, the nation's current dream chief, would have really interesting answers to them.
If we could assess journalistic norms with more honesty and less prejudice, we would see this situation more clearly. As a purveyor of information, journalism is good at some things and not-so-good at others. As noted by Content's editor Eric Effron recently, sometimes talk shows have informational advantages over news shows. Last spring, Bush bombed on the Letterman show because Letterman didn't do the standard clarification and clean-up a journalist would feel compelled to do. Letterman asked Bush: "Governor, what do you mean when you say you're a uniter, not a divider?" Bush responded with a tongue-tied knot of words. At which point, rather than responding as a journalist might, with a gentle: "'Excuse me, Governor, I'm not sure I caught your drift. Could you give me that again?," Letterman looked confused. The camera cut to his producer who looked equally baffled and then back to Letterman who still had "*huh?*" written all over his face. The audience laughed. Bush's articulation trouble got acknowledged, not prettied up.
The knee jerk response to these moments is: So what if he's not a good performer? We want good statesmen not good shmoozers. But that's hooey. Good leaders by definition lead, and one of the things that's really helpful leading is being able to excite people with ideas presented in a compelling way. That may mean -- dare I say it? -- acting like a human being who laughs when tickled, has a full range of emotions and maybe even some spiritual depth. This is not a development unique to the Television Era. Life is full of performances. Talking to journalists is a performance. Journalism is a performance. I'm performing now and it's not because I'm running for president. Nobody said you could get off life's stage without singing songs.
Barbara Osborn is host and producer of Deadline LA on KPFK 90.7 FM. She is currently writing a book about "The New News."