While conservative columnist Robert Novak’s meltdown on CNN gave liberals their own version of the Howard Dean scream — an embarrassing public gaffe with a long Internet afterlife — it could have a much more important impact, which both sides of the political aisle can agree on.
Many political talk shows have become maddening shoutfests, where reasonable debates on public policy matters get drowned out by meaningless arguments and noise. When Novak cursed on-air last week and CNN subsequently suspended him, it was a natural next step for the talk-show species.
Analysts from liberal and conservative media organizations say they are fed up with the shows — and their deadening effect on public discourse in the United States — though their views of the Novak incident itself differ.
Cliff Kincaid, the editor of Accuracy in Media, in Washington, has appeared on talk shows as a conservative commentator since the early 1980s.
“There is nothing wrong with sharp debates, but at least allow people to complete a thought. Stop the obnoxious, rude interrupting,” Kinkead said in an interview.
Rich Noyes, the research director for another conservative group, Media Research Center, in Alexandria, Va., called on networks to look back to the formats of “Washington Week in Review” or the original “McLaughlin Group” for a model.
“On the earlier roundtable shows you had journalists who were informed about the issues, informed about their beats, and could expound upon their beats. Those were discussions worth listening in on,” Noyes said.
On last Thursday’s “Inside Politics” show, Novak, a longtime Chicago Tribune columnist and television commentator, was paired with Democratic consultant James Carville. While Novak gave his views on a Florida Senate race, Carville interrupted, saying Novak had “to show the right-wingers he’s got backbone.”
“I think that’s bull … and I hate that,” Novak replied. “Just let it go.”
As CNN anchor Ed Henry started asking another question, Novak stood up, pulled off his microphone and left the live broadcast.
Henry said later in the show that he planned to ask Novak about his 2003 column unveiling the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, and the subsequent federal investigation, which has led to jail time for New York Times reporter Judith Miller and grand jury testimony for Time reporter Matthew Cooper.
Conservative voices such as Kincaid and the Wall Street Journal editorial page have said that Novak _ while wrong for cursing _ deserves an apology from Carville for baiting the 74-year-old man, and that CNN overreacted by suspending him.
Novak and CNN have a long, complicated history. He joined the Ted Turner-owned network in 1980 and has long been the main conservative voice on a station contending with a severe identity crisis as it battles Fox News.
Novak stuck with CNN’s “Crossfire” from 1980 until this January, when CNN President Jonathan Klein canceled it, criticizing the program as “a bunch of guys screaming at each other” that did “nothing to illuminate the issues of the day.”
Paul Waldman, a senior fellow at the liberal Media Matters for America, pointed to the cancellation of “Crossfire” as the first nail in the coffin for the argumentative shows.
“That was the granddaddy for these shows and the template for the typical cable shoutfest that is carried out today. … It is a real indication the genre is getting tired. The shows are almost never edifying,” Waldman said.
Research backs up that notion. A 2001 Ohio State University study showed that television viewers remembered both sides of political talks when they were done in a civil manner. Those watching argumentative shows only remembered the side they already agreed with _ and showed more negativity toward the American political system.
Still, programmers clearly worry they will lose ratings among viewers with short attention spans. “They’re just trying to grab some viewers for a few seconds, maybe for a few minutes in a 15-minute segment,” said Kincaid. “On that basis you have to say what you think quickly and if not be cut off for being too long or too boring.”