Light, With Intermittent Heat, Likely

Hoping for a long and satisfying ride, I want to start my gig as a correspondent for by answering, in part, a rhetorical question asked on this site last month by my new colleague James Warren. He wrote: "But I do wonder if cable TV news channels, amid wicked competition and in pursuit of entertaining fare, have blurred lines to the point that only a declining minority probably truly differentiates among fair-minded journalists, ideologically-driven pundits and even professional jokers dabbling in politics.

Back in Chicago and now a new columnist with The New York Times, Warren is tied too tight to the Beltway, entrenched too much among the East Coast's media elite, and has been there for too long, to realize how late he is with his question. It's already been asked and answered a thousand times; its gospel echoes each night on the airwaves and online. The lines between television news and entertainment haven't just been blurred; they have been obliterated by a terribly divisive and destructive mix: the cynicism and greed of television executives and the concomitant apathy, ignorance, and lack of curiosity on the part of the American people. Which came first? Even if you argue "the people" and not "the media" it still doesn't excuse the glee with which television news has embraced the fashionable at the expense of the important.

The proof is in the ratings. Everyone in America should watch "Frontline," for example; our nation would be far better off for it. But, instead, everyone in America watches American Idol." As a direct result, hundreds of millions of us can't name our Supreme Court Justices, or find America on a world map, or list all of the states of the Union (never mind their capitals). In this regard, our public schools have failed us. Our technology has seduced us. And our leaders have encouraged or just capitulated to the descent. We are devolving into a "Know Nothing" nation despite our unprecedented access to first-hand information about events and issues.

"Democracy demands wisdom" sounds great as a slogan but no has any relevance in a world where even the highly educated don't take the time to sort sizzle from steak. It's no wonder most of our politicians are vacuous and venal. They are being elected by people who are too busy or too bored or too lazy to do anything other than cup an ear for the loudest, cleverest, most dramatic sounds emitting from their televisions, computers or PDAs. Industry insiders often call this "noise" and imply that it's the "white" kind, on in the background but harmless to the health and welfare of everyday life. It is not. It is a deafening roar, America is listening to it (but only half of it, remember) and it is harming, not strengthening, our national interest.

Indeed, sadly, we have both the government and the news industry we deserve. Tens of millions of people now form their dogged (unfounded, hysterical, self-defeating, etc.) opinions about politics (and law and governance and history and science) based upon the sly words and dramatic performances of modern-day carnival barkers, false prophets and snake-oil salesmen like Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly and Nancy Grace. Like Sinclair Lewis' irrepressible Elmer Gantry, these charlatans all share the same cynical inside joke: The louder you scream, the more people will watch; the bigger the conspiracy you allege, the more people will believe it; the more outrage you offer up, the more passionate and prolonged will be the response. It's about entertainment, not news, and these people and many more are laughing at us all the way to the bank; the latest generation in a long line of American demagogues.

For example, Dobbs wasn't always the creepy hector he became at the end of his tenure at CNN. Once upon a time he was a respected titan of business news. But, like all evolutionary creatures, he learned how to adapt in order to survive. One of the many tangible answers to Warren's question is the sound of Dobbs' transformation over the years; from baritone on bonds to soprano on immigration. I don't blame him for doing it--look at how many millions and millions of dollars he earned from taking the low road? About as much as Nancy Grace has earned since she began shrieking at criminal defendants. Keith Olbermann understands this. That's why he adds the sizzle (Worst Person In The World) to whatever steak he offers.

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?

Let me be clear. No one pressured me to see the two paths. The pressure instead came from my audience. At, for example, my columns on the death penalty or on terrorism law or the Supreme Court got read by far fewer readers that did my pieces about Michael Jackson or Kobe Bryant or Martha Stewart. Legal stories became captive to TMZ. Vitally important events which weren't "good" television did not see the light of day on any network or cable news outlet. I got the message long before the messengers got to me.
There is room for the insipid Joy Behar on cable news. There is room for Balloon Boy and Sean Goldman on the broadcast television legal beat. But there may no longer be any room for me. The fact that you are reading this, here, tells you which choice I made. It was not easy. Toward the end of my tenure I crossed the line a few times and became a bit of a barker myself. But goodbye to all that. Although I know that people like me and Warren are on the losing side of the battle for the soul of television news, although I know it is going to get worse before it gets better, I just can't stay over on the dark side. No matter how much it costs me.



nd that's as good a place as any other to end my first piece here in this space. The Atlantic is an organization I have cherished since college. The best political writer of the 20th Century, Walter Lippmann, wrote for The Atlantic. And the magazine was the venue chosen by my Boston University professor, mentor and friend, James C. Thomson, Jr., when he wrote an important piece on the Vietnam War that changed his life. Anything and everything I write from here on in is dedicated to his courage and in his memory