The Real Problem With TV Experts

This morning I posted a response to Greg Sargent's complaint that Rudy Giuliani gets invited onto cable-news talk shows to criticize Obama's nuclear-posture review when Giuliani appears to know nothing about it. I contended that Sargent was wrong to argue that only a Republican politician who holds a position of influence over national security, such as Sen. John McCain, should be invited to criticize Obama's national-security policies on air. Giuliani is as broadly qualified (or unqualified) as the Democratic (or Republican) strategists, or liberal or conservative commentators, who recite partisan talking points about every political issue no matter how far from their experience. But I agreed with Sargent that his identification of Giuliani's apparent ignorance of what Obama's nuclear strategy actually is with regard to Iran is a real problem.

Upon reflection, I think Giuliani's ignorance is actually not so much the problem as its symptom. And Sargent takes no issue with the problem itself. The underlying cause of the unilluminating partisan belligerence on cable news is the approach that the shows take to booking guests, not the specific guests themselves. That approach is to assume that every issue, no matter how wonkish, is essentially a two-sided political dispute. If CNN approaches our nuclear posture as a question to be debated solely by legitimate foreign-policy experts, it runs the risk that none of its regular stable of experts, even if some are right-leaning, will criticize Obama.

If CNN approached producing segments on policy developments in the way that, say, we at NEWSWEEK approach writing articles, it would interview experts and stakeholders from across the spectrum rather than setting it up as a left-versus-right debate with hacks dispensing talking points on each side. Typically, on foreign or economic policy, it would often get opinions that fall generally into each party's camp. Occasionally—say, on climate-change policy—it might not. No legitimate scientific expert would question the premise that anthropogenic climate change is real and should be addressed, though they might vary in their opinions of the best way to do so. But Sargent does not endorse this approach, saying, "By all means, give a big platform to the GOP critique of Obama’s national-security policies."

But if the GOP critique deserves a big platform, why is Sargent surprised when the person giving said critique, in this case Giuliani, says something like this:

A nuclear-free world has been a 60-year dream of the left, just like socialized health care. This new policy, like Obama’s government-run health program, is a big step in that direction. President Obama thinks we can all hold hands, sing songs, and have peace symbols.

Sargent expresses shock, demanding, "Why would any network producer invite someone capable of saying this kind of thing on the air?" The answer is that this kind of thing is precisely what network producers want. Giuliani is a loyal Republican politician with a neoconservative ideology on foreign policy. If you want someone to express that viewpoint, then you're going to get a staunchly ideological caricature, like the quote Giuliani gave. Promoting that kind of contentious, partisan rhetoric is the whole point.

Partisan mudslinging such as this, from either side of the aisle, is certainly unhelpful to enhancing the public's understanding of a nuanced issue. But media critics should be clear about what they want: either you think the left-versus-right frame is inappropriate for some policy debates or you think it is always applicable. But if you accept the current approach to framing television news discussions, then you should expect more silly depictions of barefooted, longhaired hippies on the National Security Council, concocted by Giuliani or whoever replaces him. They're just doing their job.

Join the Discussion