How to Commit an Act of Broadcast Journalism


Now watch, that clip's gonna be on the air for her, doggone it. Get her some ratings.

--Sarah Palin

It's funny to see Sarah Palin taking shots at Rachel Maddow. Sarah Palin doesn't want any part of Rachel Maddow, and she knows it.  As a opinion journalist, what distinguishes Maddow, for me, is not simply to bring people on who she disagrees with. I think hosting the opposition should be the bare minimum. It's that when hosting the oppositions she hones in--specifically--on the issue she finds disagreeable. She doesn't berate. She doesn't yell. She just arms herself with facts, and refuses to relinquish the terms of the debate. 

That interview would have went a lot better for Rand Paul if Maddow had have just thrown her notes in the air and accused him of being a bigot, and a covert member of the Klan. That's what they want. And I don't simply mean conservatives--I mean people you disagree with. I know I've won a debate when my adversary says, "What the fuck type of name is Ta-Nuh-hah-see, anyway?" It translates to "I've got nothing." Much scarier is the opponent who takes your argument, with whatever nuances it may or may not possess, and politely disagrees with the argument as it is.

I try to do this in writing, with some success. Much more difficult, for me, is to do it in person. I'm always impressed by broadcast journalists who can, without getting angry, grab the point of contention and drive at it in a manner that is as civil as it is relentless. This is the art of killing softy, of quietly twisting the knife. There are a lot of people in the field who know how to be contentious over small points, and semantics. There are a lot more who know how to do fake-ass on-the-other-handism, or imbibe the weak-sauce of "both sides" and "others say." And then there are some who are partisan, but make a living dropping the bomb every time Rush Limbaugh flubs the basics of subject-verb agreement. 

And then there are a few who just know how to cut. You can't really accuse her of soundbite journalism--she gave Rand Paul twenty minutes.I'm fine with her monologues, and I understand that they're part of the show. But a few years back I watched her  shut down Pat Buchanan with a jab so quick, that I almost missed in the flurry of words. I just think she's at her best when she's in the ring. She doesn't always win, but that only makes the point. No serious committed journalist always comes out on top. The trouble with being serious, is there just aren't enough serious politicians out there. As the word gets out, I worry that opposing politicians will stop coming on the show.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in National

From This Author

Just In