VI. Impact on U.S. Politics and Journalism

Politicians learned by the late 1980s that appearing on a talk show was the cheapest, most available means to connect with the U.S. public. Talk shows became a primary venue for official political discourse, augmented by paid political advertising during the candidate or issue campaigns. Press conferences, political conventions, and formal interviews shrank in importance next to the constant search for chatty “face time” on local and national talk shows. Instead of having to rise through the ranks of a political party or machine, the politician of the 1990s found he or she could rise to prominence independently by connecting directly to financiers and voters through television and radio.

Journalists also were profoundly affected by talk show culture. Talk shows filled the empty space in the all-news radio and 24-hour cable news television formats that proliferated in the 1990s. It was far cheaper to put on a lively pro and con discussion with guests in the studio than to send a crew out to investigate the details and background of a story or political issue. This eroded the value of journalism, however, by reducing news to a clash of opposite opinions. The more dramatic the contrast in views the more energized the show, producers believed. Controversy and combat became more valued than intelligent, informed political discussion or than the dispassionate imparting of verified facts. The political center seemed to disappear on television and radio talk shows.

By the 1990s, talk show culture was overwhelming the professional journalism ethic of impartiality and verified facts. Even CNN’s weekly media criticism program, Reliable Sources, was inflicted with talk show values, bringing partisan conservatives such as Brent Bozell, Tony Blankley, and John Podhoretz on the show to draw the program’s more impartial professional journalists into verbal combat. The program also lingered on pop culture topics, such as the O.J. Simpson trial, instead of looking more systematically at the challenges and failures of America’s fourth estate.

A. In the Beginning, the Civilized Shows: Meet the Press and Washington Week in Review

From the earliest days of television, powerful journalists would sit and talk with government officials in a civil, formal discussion about policy and politics. Meet the Press was moved from radio to NBC television in 1947 and was, in 1999, broadcast television’s longest-running program. For decades, This Week with David Brinkley on ABC and Face the Nation on CBS competed with Meet the Press to invite the most newsworthy officials of the week. These Sunday morning programs became popular vehicles for political officials to “spin” the selling points for their policies, to launch political campaigns, and to win national attention for themselves. Thanks to these talk shows, obscure policymakers became household celebrities, helping to promote their careers within the political establishment as they pushed their party’s agenda with the public.

In 1967, PBS created Washington Week in Review, a live roundtable talk show for journalists to discuss the meaning and background gossip surrounding the week’s events in Washington. But by the 1990s, the show was barely hanging on as more aggressive, opinionated, and dramatic political talk attracted the newer generations of viewers. Television overwhelmed print journalism and party politics, shifting the balance of power from influential Washington newspaper columnists to a whole squad of television “pundits” who might not know as much, but could express their opinions forcefully. As James Fallows lamented in Breaking the News, print journalists who appeared also on television began drawing huge lecture fees because the television political chat shows had made them famous.

In the 1990s there were many more options to choose from as new technologies exploded the number of television channels. Stolid discussion programs were losing audience share because they were the very “insider” expert discussions that average Americans found boring and irrelevant to their daily concerns. Thanks to the remote control, more entertaining television–from shopping to sports, cartoons, movies and pay-per-view pornography–was just a zap away.

B. The McLaughlin Group and Crossfire

Two shows which transformed polite political talk to ideological combat wereThe McLaughlin Group and Crossfire. John McLaughlin, a former priest and defender of President Nixon in the final days of Watergate, carefully cast his journalist roundtable to include a liberal “goat” whom he could debate and berate. As Suzanne Garment wrote in the Wall Street Journal after appearing on his program, it was not as spontaneous as it appeared. Crossfire on CNN was hosted by partisan politicians, including perennial presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and a former GOP White House chief of staff. Some journalists were unwilling to participate in these deliberately provocative talk shows, noting that instead of recounting what they knew, the show’s journalists were constantly being urged to express snap opinions and predict the future.

C. Politicians Interchangeable with Talk Show Celebrities

When their electoral careers hit a dead end, politicians often turned into talk show hosts. Thus Geraldine Ferraro, Jesse Jackson, George Stephanopoulos, Mario Cuomo, and countless other political figures joined the talk show ranks. Partisan ideologues sometimes were identified as consultants or commentators and audiences were clueless about their real agendas.

Talk show culture infected politics in other nations as well, and it did not always have a salutary affect. In Taiwan, for example, talk shows became influential showcases for political candidates. But as political observer David Huang lamented in February 2000, partisan political figures often appeared as if they were scholars or experts and tried to use this false authority to sway the audience.

a. Larry King Replaces the Political Convention

If politicians were turning into talk show celebrities, so were talk show hosts turning into political gatekeepers. In a class by himself was Larry King, a former radio deejay whose CNN television program became in the early 1990s a favorite springboard for political candidates. Ross Perot’s announcement on King’s November 20, 1992, show that he would be willing to run for president was a watershed moment in U.S. political history. Despite his failure to ask the difficult questions journalists try to pose to their subjects, King ran one of the more newsworthy talk shows in the late 1990s. It was also one of the few that still carried on friendly conversations, sparked periodically by questions from callers. King’s ingratiating style was the opposite of Springer’s ambush attacks; his flattery disarmed his guests and led them to say more than they intended.

D. Talk Shows and the Character Police

Talk show culture, fueled by societal shifts in sex roles and behavior, helped to push previously intimate topics onto the political stage. By the late 1980s, establishment journalists had joined the tabloids in sexual witchunts, tracking down allegations of adulterous or predatory sexual misbehavior by politicians, televangelists, businesspeople, and even other journalists, including television talk show host John McLaughlin.

Competing to outdo each other with ever more shocking revelations, journalists erased prior professional barriers between public and private, between news and entertainment. Following career-ending revelations about sexual behavior by such elected officials as Senator Robert Packwood, the door was open to public judgments about every official’s private life. Media disclosures prompted the excruciatingly detailed 1991 Senate testimony by Anita Hill on live television about alleged sexual harassment by Supreme Court Justice candidate Clarence Thomas. This was followed seven years later by Congress’s even more graphic impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, with a worldwide television audience following every lurid detail of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Talk show information did not have to be true to hit its mark. All kinds of rumors and political dirt ricocheted from radio and the Internet to television and print. The suicide of Clinton White House counsel Vincent Foster fueled right-wing radio talk show conspiracy theorists for years, as did a subsequently discredited story pushed by leftists that crack cocaine was introduced deliberately into the black community by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Columbia Journalism Review poll of 147 senior U.S. journalists taken in November 1998 found that most felt having reporters appear as commentators and pundits made their journalism worse. Only 15% thought it improved their journalism quality. Even though talk show culture distorted the content, mission, and credibility of journalism, news organizations still encouraged their reporters to join the fray. The Chicago Tribune hired a television coach to work with its reporters. Time and Newsweek paid their writers cash bonuses each time they chatted on a television or radio program; some magazine staffers even had regular contracts with television networks. Journalists and politicians seemed so interchangeable on the programs, debating their opinions, that journalism became just another part of the talk show culture, a blur of rumor, fact, propaganda, and infotainment.

a. The Clinton Impeachment

Bill Clinton became in 1992 the first talk show president in the United States, elected despite the Jennifer Flowers allegations which he talked away on a brilliant joint appearance with his wife on CBS’s 60 Minutes. He made political history by taking his presidential campaign to the talk and late-night comedy shows, playing his saxophone and confessing that he wore boxer undershorts. These informal appearances were thought to be a boost for all concerned; they gave Clinton free air time, enhanced the shows’ ratings, and gave viewers a chance to see the informal, “human” side of the candidate at a time when official politics and policymaking were out of fashion.

Despite their efforts to catch up with the runaway popular culture, by 1992 the professional journalists no longer served as gatekeepers to the nation’s political discourse. There were too many new outlets on cable TV and radio luring politicians out of the old press box. Talk shows had come into their own; they could no longer be overlooked as an important political resource. Mandy Grunwald, a Clinton advisor said that he went on the entertainment and talk shows during the campaign because “this is how people get their information.” The talk shows such as Larry King Live and Arsenio Hall had done an end run. U.S. journalism and politics would never be the same again.

When the Senate in 1998 impeached Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, politics had become even more outlandish than the talk shows: In order to inoculate themselves against charges of hypocrisy as they prosecuted Clinton, a parade of conservative GOP congressional representatives abruptly admitted their own extramarital affairs, from longtime moralist Representative Henry Hyde to Representative Bob Livingston, who abandoned the Speakership of the House after disclosing his own sexual indiscretion. All of this was shown around the world on live television, thanks to CNN and Rupert Murdoch’s television network.

If the American people had agreed with the conservative Republicans and tradition-minded journalists that Clinton’s sexual misbehavior was properly a public concern, the impeachment would have forced him from office. But the public made it clear in opinion polls and media interviews during the House’s lurid televised trial that most did not want their political system to hinge on such matters. Talk show culture helped make it possible for such intimate details about the president’s sex acts to be exposed in the first place. But it also meant that the public was not especially shocked at Clinton’s affair or even at his lying about it. What he had done was actually pretty tame compared to what many Americans were confessing daily on talk shows.

After more than a decade of talk show culture, it seemed unlikely by the end of the 1990s that private consensual sexual behavior would again be the doomsday weapon it had been in the 1980s. But it also seemed clear that the public would no longer assume the moral rectitude of its political leaders as it had in the 1960s with John F Kennedy. In the l970s and 1980s, the women’s rights movement, including the incursion of women into the political press corps, helped to elevate sexual hypocrisy as a public issue. By the end of the 1990s, the excessive attention to such previously private matters on talk shows had finally liberated Americans to think about something else.

E. Talk Show Culture and the 2000 Election

By 2000, even the stiffest of candidates made the talk and comedy show rounds, hoping to improve their image as likeable guys who could relate to the average American. Moralistic Ralph Nader, the Green Party crusader, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, the senator who earlier had joined with conservatives to campaign against talk show excesses, burst into song during his own late-night debut. George Bush scored points with the pundits when he charmingly planted a kiss on the cheek of talk show superstar Oprah Winfrey, after Al Gore had simply shaken hands professionally with her during his own guest appearance. The kiss became a headline–and a symbol of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”–at a time when the notoriously wooden Gore needed to persuade voters that Bush was scary.

Talk shows were just as important to the two candidates after the voting was over November 7. Struggling for advantage amid a confusing vote count, the two parties staked their victory on two battles: the legal fight in the courts and the public opinion fight, conducted largely on television. Boston Globe media critic Mark Jurkowicz decried the “polarizing pols and pundits” of the cable TV talk shows, who, he said, “follow the three sacred rules of engagement: see no nuance, acknowledge no merit in the opponents’ argument; and agree not to agree on anything.” Scholar Deborah Tannen also criticized the post-election analysis programs as “just one more TV extravaganza in which the polarizing civic dialogue of the talk shows’ “argument culture” had submerged public affairs into entertainment.

A survey by the Pew Research Center before the election found that only 14% of respondents felt they were regularly learning something about the presidential campaign from the political talk shows. Yet the candidate who failed to make the required stops on the late-night shows did so at his peril. Talkers magazine bureau chief Ellen Ratner, a Democrat, declared shortly after her candidate Gore lost the election that he had made a big mistake by not making a campaign stop, as George W. Bush did, at a New York City gathering of talk show broadcasters. Instead, Gore “listened to the polls, the focus groups, and forgot that those of us in the talk media are the keepers of the water cooler buzz,” she said.