Hirsch looks for political discussion on TV and finds only show business

March 10, 1991|By Carl Sessions Stepp

TALKING HEADS:

POLITICAL TALK SHOWS

AND THEIR STAR PUNDITS.

Alan Hirsch.

St. Martin's.

250 pages. $17.95.

Pundit Tom Braden once arrived for a taping of the televisioshow "Crossfire" only to encounter a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon decked out in full regalia.

"How dare you come in here with that silly costume?" Mr. Braden demanded.

"Because your producer told me to wear it," the Klan member replied.

This story, repeated in this book with fine effect, epitomizes Alan Hirsch's analysis of what has gone wrong with political talk shows. Programs such as "Crossfire," "The McLaughlin Group," "Inside Washington" and "Capital Gang" have become the journalistic equivalent of mud wrestling, he argues, depending on trumped-up theatrics and subordinating solid thinking to shallow repartee.

This debasement of debate particularly disappoints Mr. Hirsch, a Silver Spring attorney, because "there is a growing sense that television's op-ed page is supplanting the newspaper op-ed page as the primary source of the public's exposure to opinion commentary."

Perhaps he's right about this, although I fail to see how any viewer could take these pompous shows very seriously.

Certainly, in this readable volume, Mr. Hirsch amply documents that the programs lack substance.

Among his chief complaints is that a major effect of political talk shows is to "convert serious thinkers and writers into cartoon figures." As examples, he cites James J. Kilpatrick and Robert Novak, two respectable craftsmen who, because of the scowling roles they act out on television, "have their contribution diminished by becoming celebrities and caricatures."

Secondly, Mr. Hirsch believes the whole civics-as-show-biz syndrome corrupts public discourse in a variety of ways. It turns debate into spectacle, squeezes out non-mainstream opinions, and further shortens the nation's attention span by telescoping analysis into a series of cutesy sound bites.

Like many critics, Mr. Hirsch finds it easier to articulate problems than to prescribe solutions. Basically, he calls on the public to repudiate the current condition and to pressure Congress, regulators and the networks into presenting more serious political discussion.

Unfortunately, this prescription flies in the face of his own analysis, which holds that the public likes the antics of these programs. That being the case, where will the momentum for reform come from? Short of total public breakdown (let's imagine, say, Pat Buchanan and George Will going at each other on camera with tire irons), this problem doesn't generate enough outrage to foment a rebellion.

For all the considerable merits of his book, Mr. Hirsch leaves hanging a central part of the problem: the fortification that info-tainment has against intellectual attack.

Info-tainment, after all, is entertainment based on information. While its entertainment component may exceed Mr. Hirsch's tastes, it does beat horoscopes and "Married . . . With Children." It does offer a measure of political and cultural enrichment. It does provide, for large segments of the audience, small and painless lessons.

Info-tainment, then, isn't insidious in itself, but only to the degree that it crowds out deeper and richer channels of information. The problem isn't with the silly talk shows themselves. Like sugary breakfast cereals, they aren't so bad as part of a balanced information diet.

The larger danger seems to come when info-tainment surges out of the margins and begins to dominate our civic diets. Mr. Hirsch hints that this is happening. Perhaps, in his next book, he can fully engage the larger issue.

Mr. Stepp teaches journalism at the University of Maryland and is senior editor of Washington Journalism Review.

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