Adam Serwer reflects on the experience of going on MSNBC:
Yesterday afternoon I was told what the topics would be -- FinReg, Social Security, and Democrats trying to get incriminating videos of Republicans. Knowing that these weren't really my areas of expertise, I asked Tim, who has some chops on these issues, if he had a suit coat at the office and could go on in my stead. He didn't.
Salam, whatever my disagreements with him, is a genuine social policy expert and has written a book on social policy. I merely have generally liberal views about who should bear the financial burden of social programs. I brushed up with a smart blog post by Dylan Matthews on Social Security and got Tim to give me the run down on FinReg. Conclusion: After a few minutes of research, a reasonably intelligence person can go on television and pretend like he isn't punching a hundred pounds out of his weight class.
This isn't a knock on Chris, who I think is making a good-faith attempt to make cable news programs a little less mindless by picking some heterodox guests. The problem is the two-minute debate format, which is completely irredeemable. Case in point, a while ago I did a segment on Gitmo, a subject on which I've done actual reporting, with a RedState blogger who was clearly lost. Despite that, I don't think that anyone learned any more from that appearance than they did from the one above. The level of expertise you have on an issue just doesn't matter when you have 15 seconds to express a point of view over a period of two minutes. You can fake it, and even if you're not faking it, there's no time to say anything meaningful.
He explains why he'll continue to do cable news shows anyway here. His sparring partner Reihan Salam adds this in comments:
I'm hardly an expert, as many TAPPED readers would surely agree. It was a pleasure to chat with you. And I agree that Chris did an outstanding job. Having watched the first half of the show, I was impressed by how he was able to introduce fairly complex and controversial ideas about the international scene in a few short words.
I also agree with you about the limitations of the genre -- definitely more like performance art than any kind of deliberation. By nature, it's impossible to engage in real give-and-take. Chris is an effective performer and an effective polemicist, which is part of why he's well-suited to it, but of course he's often a complicated dude with complicated thoughts that the format can't capture.
My own feeling, though, is that the problem (if you can call it that) goes beyond cable news. A lot of political conversation closely resembles conversation about sports -- and I'm an outlier in not finding professional sports extremely engaging, for a lot of the reasons I find most conventional political conversation not-engaging: I'm a lot more interested in trying to get a sense of what's going on in the world, and in what makes people and institutions flourish, than in teamsmanship per se.
But teamsmanship is the way to find and connect with an audience, so there's a delicate balance. And though you can certainly make a more thorough and careful argument in a lengthy blog post, I tend to think the teamsmanship is the root of the problem.
All that said, the performance aspect of these semi-scripted confrontations is clearly fun for a nontrivial number of people. It's the sense in which we are -- for all our aspirations and lofty self-perceptions -- a small, decidedly unglamorous part of the entertainment industry. This is hard to reconcile yourself to when you like to think of yourself as a sometimes educator and an always student.
In my opinion, Mr. Salam is one of the best at making substantive points in a short format television program. That even he finds the genre more like performance art than deliberation is quite an indictment against it. But so long as it persists, better that these two debate -- and that a class act like Chris Hayes hosts -- than any alternative personnel I can imagine.