In this morning's Wall Street Journal, my friend Brian Wesbury complains about the "talking head" culture on business television where every interview seems designed to provoke debate. If one of the guests is a bull, Brian says, then the other has to be a bear. If there is only one guest, he says, the interviewer generally plays Devil's advocate.
The result, Wesbury says, is that viewers are often misled into thinking that there is a great deal of disagreement among economists when in fact there may be a virtual consensus. By seeking out a few incompetents or cranks just to have "balance" and create sparks, news shows may be unintentionally misleading viewers by implying that isolated views that are well outside the mainstream actually have validity. This may encourage investors to pursue unwise investment strategies or worry unnecessarily about extremely unlikely dangers.
This is a pet peeve of my own and a reason why I avoid these sorts of programs. One thing that annoyed me particularly was that the producers would often put me up against some total nobody who had no clue about what he was talking about. In one case--I kid you not--I debated the minimum wage with an honest-to-God, fresh-off-the-streets homeless person. I refused to ever appear on that channel ever again and it eventually went off the air. (Incidentally, it's also annoying that bookers almost never tell you who you will debating ahead of time.)
I don't mind debating those whose views are diametrically opposed to mine. In fact, I enjoy a good debate and have any number of friends on the left whom I would be happy to debate any time on any issue. Even though we may come to different conclusions, I know that we can probably agree on the facts and will argue along predictable lines. But too many producers find such sober discussions to be boring, so they try to liven things up by setting up debates with people who make up their own facts, argue illogically, make no effort to be consistent, and, too often, use up most of the alloted air time. Thus you end up wasting your own time refuting the other guy's errors rather than making your own points.
This is not an ideological problem. I know that my friends on the left are just as frustrated by the system as I am. And the problem is not isolated to economic discussions but extends into every area of news, science, politics, public policy or whatever. It's why even the most inane, crackpot theories continue to have currency.
I have noticed that over the years there has been a dumbing-down of the talking heads. Whereas previously the two heads would belong to noted experts from respected institutions, today they are more likely to be labeled "Democratic consultant" or "Republican strategist." These people are often so obscure that when I do a Google search on them there is no evidence that they even exist.
I know that the artificial debate format is not going to go away. But maybe it would be possible for the networks to encourage those conducting the interviews to be a little more proactive when one of the guests goes off on a tangent or makes outrageous claims with no factual basis. They should behave more like baseball umpires than boxing referees who just want to keep it clean.
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