You Can't Win a TV Argument in an Internet World

Here's what we can learn from the flare-up between an MSNBC host and a New Republic editor: The power distinction between host and guest is a flexible one in the internet world. And, further: there is never a last word on any subject.

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Here's what we can learn from the small-but-heated flare-up between an MSNBC host and a New Republic editor: The power distinction between host and guest is a flexible one in the internet world. And, further: there is never a last word on any subject.

The Last Word, as you may know, is the MSNBC show hosted by Lawrence O'Donnell. On Wednesday's program, O'Donnell got into a debate with The New Republic's Julia Ioffe over the omnipotence of Vladimir Putin in Russia. "Debate" may be too mild a word; at one point, he put his head in his hands in (mock) anguish.

You might notice that Ioffe never answered O'Donnell's original question: Was she surprised the Snowden situation was mentioned in the administration announcement that the president wouldn't go to Russia?

At least, she didn't answer it on air. Instead, Ioffe wrote a detailed article answering the question, and throwing in some additional thoughts on the exchange.

Lawrence O'Donnell yelled at me. Or, rather, he O'Reilly'd at me. That O'Donnell interrupted and harangued and mansplained and was generally an angry grandpa at me is not what I take issue with, however. What bothers me is that, look: your producers take the time to find experts to come on the show, answer your questions, and, hopefully, clarify the issue at hand.

The question of the extent to which Putin controlled Snowden's fate in Russia is interesting. But so is the point Ioffe makes above: How a host and a guest on television interact both on-air and off.

Consider this. In part (or largely) because of its aggressive excoriation of O'Donnell's behavior, Ioffe's post articulating her points on Russia has was shared widely Thursday morning. While figures on viewership of The Last Word for Wednesday night aren't yet available, on Tuesday 661,000 people watched. Ioffe's post almost certainly won't have that many viewers, but it will likely number in the tens of thousands. (We've emailed The New Republic to see if they'll share the actual figure.) Many of those sharing and discussing Ioffe's story probably didn't see the actual segment, instead only watching it embedded at The New Republic's website. And it is probable that those who read Ioffe's response before seeing the segment to which it is responding constitutes a more influential group of people.

It's an interesting manifestation of one of the liberalizing aspects of the internet. In 2009, web and media savant Dave Winer wrote a post titled, "The reboot of journalism." Bolded emphasis added below.

In 1994 we didn't know what the new journalism would look like, and we still don't, but we knew some essential elements, perhaps the essential element — that sources go direct. It's the thing the Internet does to all intermediaries, it disses them. It happened to travel agents, realtors, classified ads, all kinds of shopping, and it has happened to news too.

An MSNBC appearance has enormous value in terms of communicating an idea. But as Winer notes, it is hardly the only way in which to convey that value. Ioffe was invited on the show to, in her words, "clarify the issue at hand." When the fight made that impossible, O'Donnell's source went direct, taking advantage of a much more flexible medium (text) to extend her thoughts and response. Yes, Ioffe has an unusual vehicle in the prominence of the website that hosts that writing, but, as we see regularly, nearly any writing online could similarly rise to national attention. If a Russian news anchor wanted to, say, contest Ioffe's point about Putin's control, he could, in theory, write a post somewhere that would provide as robust a platform as hers or O'Donnell's. (With certain freedom-of-speech contingencies.)

People like to watch fights. The O'Donnell segment didn't teach us much, but people watched long enough to learn at least a little something. Which is exactly what made Ioffe's post popular. A little more fight, a little more information. And if O'Donnell doesn't invite Ioffe back on to continue the conversation by the end of the week — which would be a surprise, to say the least — we're more than happy to host a continuation of the dispute here at The Atlantic Wire. Sources are welcome to go direct at this domain, too.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.