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Adrift in Scarborough Country

Joe Scarborough welcomes viewers to his MSNBC talk show with the promise of "no passport required and only common sense allowed."

Unfortunately, it seems evidence is not always allowed in Scarborough Country -- at least evidence that might contradict the conservative "common sense" or make for "boring" television.

My experience as a guest on Scarborough's show two nights this past week is a reminder of how little space there is on U.S. television for serious discussion of public policy. I tell this story not because I feel personally aggrieved but because it's an indication of how degraded our political and media cultures are these days.

I've been a guest on the former Republican congressman's show a dozen times since 9/11, providing a left analysis of war, media and a variety of social issues. Although the format is highly constraining (not much time, up against a conservative host and one or more conservative guests, issues presented with a right-wing framing that would take more time than is available to challenge), I've always found Scarborough Country to be the conservative TV talk show in which I get the fairest treatment (certain FOX News shows, for example, can be much worse). It's far from an ideal format, but when they call, I don't hesitate to go on.

On May 16, I appeared with Brent Bozell from the Media Research Center, a right-wing media watchdog group, to discuss the controversy over Newsweek's Quran-flushed-down-a-toilet story. In the course of that discussion, I made what I thought were some obvious points: That there were other sources for Quran-desecration stories beyond the Newsweek article, and that such stories are not difficult to believe given a documented pattern of abuse in U.S. military prisons that includes sexual humiliation, beatings and murder.

At that point, Bozell demanded that I provide evidence of the assertion that U.S. soldiers had murdered prisoners. I mentioned that the military's own reports acknowledged this, but Bozell found that inadequate and demanded, "No, don't give me reports -- you give me the evidence."

Although I pride myself on keeping a level head on these shows, I must confess I was a bit confused at this point. No reports, just evidence? Aren't investigative reports a kind of evidence? Did he want me to produce a dead body for the camera?

Because I had not expected to discuss these details on the show, I hadn't prepped on those reports and couldn't cite specific documents on the spot. But I promised I would send them along once I got back to my office. Scarborough closed the segment with an invitation to me to come back the next night to bring the evidence that Bozell had harangued me about. I agreed and rearranged my schedule to make room for a follow-up appearance.

The next morning I assembled a variety of documents, including the unclassified portion of the report that Vice Adm. Albert T. Church had presented to Congress in March 2005, at which time Church cited six prisoner deaths caused by abuse. I assumed that material -- combined with stories about the military's own trials of soldiers on criminal homicide charges, New York Times stories about prison homicides that were based on military investigations, and an Associated Press report that compiled the most extensive list of prisoner deaths publicly available -- made my point adequately.

I sent those files to Scarborough's producer, who thanked me for my effort, and Bozell, who didn't return my call (although his assistant did confirm receiving the material). That evening I dutifully trudged over to the studio in Austin to present the evidence that I had been badgered about the previous evening. But instead of revisiting the question, as Scarborough had promised, I found myself electronically sandwiched between Pat Buchanan and U.S. News & World Report publisher Morton Zuckerman for another gabfest on the Quran story (transcript at ). The producer talking into my earpiece told me to remember that the show would concentrate on that day's developments in the Newsweek story and that I shouldn't spend too much time on the previous night's questions.

Not to worry -- it turns out I didn't get to spend any time on the evidence I had been requested to produce; Scarborough never asked me about it and gave me no opening to bring it up. His first question to me concerned the White House's criticisms of Newsweek earlier that day, leaving me the option of either ignoring him in order to talk about the abuse of prisoners (and appear to the audience to be avoiding his question) or going with the flow. So, with the flow I went, and the question of whether or not I could support the claims I had made the previous evening evaporated.

Why did Scarborough ignore the issue? I've sent a query asking him that question and hope I hear back, but in the meantime two possible reasons come to mind. The cynical interpretation is that because the material I had sent to the show's producer undermined Scarborough's case against Newsweek, he decided to ignore it. But my experience is that Scarborough is willing to let folks like me have our say, albeit under constraining conditions.

Perhaps a more likely explanation is that on this kind of shout-TV, serious consideration of evidence slows down a show, which means some viewers might drift away, which would lower ratings, which drives down the ad rates that the network can charge, which eventually means... no more show. And when a serious consideration of such evidence supports a radical critique, well, it's an easy call: Time to move on.

Whatever the reason, it's important that people recognize that even when there is some "balance" on these shows, they typically do little or nothing to inform people or deepen the political debate. That's part of the reason I'm often challenged by fellow leftists about my decision to do these shows. If nothing is accomplished -- precisely because the format doesn't give people with views counter to the conventional wisdom adequate time to develop an argument -- why even play the game?

I continue to go on talk TV because we leftists get so few opportunities to speak to such a large audience that I hesitate to turn down any chance to reach people. Even shows with a right-wing host attract an audience that includes centrists, liberals and leftists. That means -- however limited the scope of the program -- there are people with conventional political views watching who may, after hearing even a fragment of a left argument, be spurred to do more investigation on their own. And for the leftists watching, there is some value in seeing their views represented in mainstream discourse. After a TV appearance, I routinely get positive email from people in both categories. And, every now and then, I have a meaningful exchange with someone on the right, the value of which should not be ignored.

So, even with all the structural and ideological limitations, on balance I have decided it's worth the effort, and I'll keep going back to the studio.

And, even if there's not always room for it on the air, I'll keep bringing evidence.

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