Intellectual honesty and rigor, or reasoned, dispassionate analysis, is for wimps, public television and the occasional unscripted moment on the Sunday shows. This paradigm wouldn't have been tolerated by news executives even ten years ago. The media's wall separating Church (editorial) from State (corporate) was weakening back then. But it's virtually gone today. News executives embrace the theatrical without apparent shame. No wonder that reality-show-wannabes are doing all sorts of idiotic things these days to get on the news. They realize that everything now is in play; that the networks and cable outlets will cover stories that aren't news, so long as they get a rise out of their audiences.
Another answer to Warren's belated question is the disappearance of a true "center" in the formation of public opinion. By center I don't mean political center. I mean an analytical center. Commentators and experts who want to shed light instead of heat--those who are humble or who simply want to be honest about the limitations of their own powers to predict future events-- are shoved off to the sidelines and replaced by people who often have nothing to say but who are willing to say it loudly. On my beat, the law beat, I have learned that those who know don't talk too much and that those who talk too much typically don't know.
Problem is, people watching at home can't tell which is which, who is who. In my neck of the woods, a place representative of about 80 percent of the rest of America which is not Gotham or K Street or Hollywood's back lots, people don't compare the sensible words of Jim Warren with the schlocky rants of Glenn Beck. There is no comparison. People generally have no idea who Warren is. For the most part, they no longer know, or care, that Warren (but not Beck) has carefully chosen his words so as to be responsible. When it comes to most television news, light is dead; heat is King.
It's a Harper's Index question that perhaps someone can answer: what's the ratio of monthly readers of The Atlantic to monthly viewers of Dancing with the Stars. That's the calculus at work here; the mathematical proof that those of us who still believe in the worth of offering sound (if not particularly exciting) opinions to the public are losing the war for the intellect of our neighbors and friends and co-workers. On television news, without so much as a ratings system signaling the extent of the garbage being offered as news, Beck promises the Apocalypse and a viewer can be part of Grace's posse and jury. What's the other side, my side, got? Warren and other serious journalists who never wanted to shout to begin with. Game over. Real news typically simply can't compete with entertainment disguised as commentary and analysis. It's not a fair fight.
In many ways, I am both a perpetrator and direct victim of this phenomenon--the tabloidization of television news. As a commentator and opinion writing and sound byte for CBS News for a decade, I was forced over the years to pick between stark choices. Would I move from the "light not heat" model, take the low road, and eagerly volunteer for analysis about silly celebrity legal news (or, even worse, utterly vacuous faux celebrity legal news)? Or would I stand my ground in the middle, or even tack highbrow, and continue to fight for more coverage of legal news that really was important?