Sunday shows are a relic of a lazy low-stakes era

Sunday shows are a relic of a lazy low-stakes era
Image via Screengrab.

On one of the now unwatchable Sunday "news" shows, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd introduced a segment on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic by—I'm just kidding. It wasn't about the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a segment about the most favorite of all Sunday show segments, and indeed largely the only segment any of the Sunday shows ever do: How will This Thing, the major news of the day, Affect Mah Politics?

"The economy's inability to fully recover from the shock of COVID-19 is both an economic story and a political one," intoned Todd.

The economy's inability to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic is in large part due to anti-distancing, anti-mask, vaccine-skeptical, pro-virus-spreading policies from Republican politicians who have been using conservative frustration with safety measures as a rallying cry for their own careers, resulting in a new wave of overwhelmed hospitals and dead victims that was entirely preventable if sociopathic politicos had not turned pandemic crisis protocols into the latest spite-riddled "culture war."

"All those economic problems add up to a big political problem for the president. Is all of this his fault? Of course not, but it is now his responsibility. And he and fellow Democrats are in real danger of suffering some serious political consequences. Mr. Biden ran on a promise of a basic return to normal—or at least a path to normalcy. But with the midterm elections just over a year away—"

Stop. Just stop. Fine, we get it. We're doing this again. Republicans continue to get their constituents killed at elevated rates; let's now turn to our panel of experts to determine what the political implications of Republicans killing off their constituents will be for the Democrats who, uh, failed to convince them not to die to own the libs.

"Whadda think, Bob? Think all those surviving family members are gonna punish Democrats in the midterms?"

"I dunno, Steve, but between that and Americans quitting their dangerous bullshit pandemic poverty-wage jobs to look for better ones, there's real chaos out there on the streets. And it doesn't look good for anyone waiting for a Tickle-me-Elmo toy because the container ships are real backed up over on the left coast. And what if Republicans decide to start shooting constituents in the face? That'd look real bad for Joe Biden, who's run on a platform of not shooting people in the face."

And it ain't just that. Another of the Todd segments scraped up another entry in the "obsessively arch-right fascist Trump supporters still like Trump" press compulsion. Hey, the guy may have attempted to end our democracy through hoaxes and violence, but a bunch of Jesus-punchers think, if anything, that just makes him even more awesome.

We've been here before. This ain't new, and Matt Negrin, in particular, has brought all the necessary receipts and then some to show that Chuck Todd's Meet the Press, in particular, is a relentless promoter of Republican frames, one that uses the "panel" format to mix hard-right Republican strategists and figures in with neutral journalists while studiously avoiding Democratic guests. Most insipidly, Todd has been a prime rehabilitator for the Republican supporters of an election hoax that led to a violent insurrection.

Why? Is that "neutrality"? Is it "news"?

The problem with Meet the Press is the problem with all political journalism: It shouldn't exist. It's lazy. It's cheap, hackish, phone-it-in programming cobbled together because doing journalism is hard but talking about the "political implications" of any news story is easy. Ask how the ongoing mostly Republican-state COVID-19 crisis is affecting social programs and you'll have to do research to find out. Ask whether the stance of anti-mask politicians like Ron DeSantis is morally defensible and you'll have to expose your own moral convictions.

Ask how the widespread death and economic chaos will affect the political winds when whatever-the-next-election-is rolls around, though, and you don't need to know a damn thing. It's easy. It's trivial. Pick out whichever guests will most reliably say something "exciting" and you've got yourself a show.

"Hey, Trump campaign spokesguy Jason Miller, the price of chicken went up by ten cents over the last six months. How do you think that's gonna play among [spins wheel] Evangelical voters in [throws dart] Wyoming?"

"I think this is great news for Donald Trump, and I'd also like to mention here that Wyoming Evangelicals are also very worried about Joe Biden's surrender to the mole people that happened last Thursday but that nobody here is reporting. Also, Joe Biden eats children."

"Thanks, Jason, we'll have to leave it there."

Anyone can opine about politics. It requires no expertise. It requires little thought. On television, where nobody in front of or behind the cameras gives a particular damn whether or not a guest just lies outright to the nation because they'll already be three lies beyond that one before anyone else can get a word in edgewise, there is absolutely no penalty for being wrong. Or lying. Or undermining democracy. Or egging on violence. Or anything else.

The Sunday shows are the worst thing politics can be: no-stakes. It is all just a game, a little game among the wealthy professional class to fill time while questions of morality and decency are pooh-poohed as the naive domain of the common rabble. True political journalism covers democracy and fascism as neutral ideological combatants; considers death ancillary to poll numbers; judges economic policy based on the analysis of whoever has the most money to spend on analysis; considers false propaganda to be Reasonable, if it can be made Effective; and, above all, dodges all policy considerations in favor of meta-debate about which political figures will most have their images buffed or tarnished from the policy's defeat or acceptance.

Would it be economically wise to avoid a worldwide climate catastrophe that sinks Florida, burns much of the West to a cinder, causes widespread crop failures, and renders certain parts of the globe literally uninhabitable if the air conditioners fail? There's not even a question! Set aside every moral and environmental question, and you're still left with the unambiguous case that moving national energy policy toward less-polluting alternatives will save the country from unfathomable economic costs in the decades to come.

We're not going to get that conversation on Meet the Press, ever, because no non-journalist booked on Meet the Press knows a damn thing about it. We're not going to get the kind of hard-edged reporting that the profession idolizes in fictional stories but shudders with contempt at providing itself, reporting in which political figures are confronted about their astonishing ineptitude in managing this or any other of the existential issues of the day.

We will get an unending parade of professional know-nothings to discuss how Joe Manchin's posturing or Bernie Sanders' gruffness might bump off-year poll numbers in the span between now and the future crisis, because that's the sort of talk that allows charlatans who don't believe in anything to have opinions on everything.

I'm tired. We're all tired. These shows are astonishingly tired, shambling along like brainless zombies wandering past thickets of political violence, environmental cataclysm, mass disease, widespread government failure, and the alteration of the nation's democratic discourse into, literally, an arena of professional hoax-promotion. The old formats were designed for sleepier times when the nation could coast along, ineffective and only a little bit corrupt, with no wars that affected the Important People or economic tragedies that the Important People could not weather. Now that we have passed through decades of ambivalent puttering to come face-to-face with genuine crisis, we learn that none of the shows are built to grapple with crises. They were a child's toy, a little playground in which the powerful could snip playfully at each other on camera before going to eat in the same tony restaurants and golf at the same posh resorts. They were not meant to tackle true problems—only to provide small, timed skits showing what tackling problems might look like, according to the fictions of the day, while making sure that none of it ever truly solved anything or even moved the conversation forward.

Those are not the formats in which a nation can grapple with a pandemic that will likely kill a million of its citizens. It would be farcical in the case of, say, a predicted asteroid strike or supervolcano eruption. It would be rendered so grotesquely absurd, if God Himself were to saunter down with a message or if alien life punched a hole through dimensions to invite us to dinner, that it would pass only as low comedy. Nobody on these shows gives a damn if the nation falls or the atmosphere burns. It was only meant to be a club for idle banter, nothing bold enough as to even scrape the lines of are laws based on overt bigotries bad or just a cultural choice, the sort of vapid dorm room debates on "are seat belts good" or "does unleaded gas represent government tyranny" that nobody involved would give two shits about, on their way home from the studio.

Meet the Press found itself confronting an actual insurrection—and folded. It couldn't cope. It had no tools for the job. So Chuck Todd invited the insurrectionists onto the program and helped redeem even election hoaxes, party-backed propaganda and candidate-organized insurrection as a reasonable political choice to be made. Not because he or anyone else involved gave a particular damn either way, and not because they did not, but because there is no Sunday morning format that can handle violent insurrection except as fodder for the professional know-nothings to banter aimlessly about. It was never meant to have actual stakes. Nobody, in any of the network executive suites, even knows what such a thing would look like.

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