Wanted: Less Terrible Political Coverage on TV

Everyone knows there’s a problem with televised political coverage. The big question is how to fix it.

11.19.14 10:45 AM ET

Jon Stewart is nothing if not America’s foremost cable news critic. On Sunday, he couldn’t help telling CNN what he thinks of them—and he did it on their network. “I want more of good CNN,” Stewart said. “CNN is very similar to the doll Chucky. Sometimes it’s good Chucky, but you really got to watch out for bad Chucky.”

It’s not just CNN. Much of what passes for political coverage these days is (to borrow a phrase) “bad Chucky.” What Stewart admires are the “brave correspondents” who cover things like the Arab Spring. What he doesn’t like, though—the breathless and feigned “BREAKING NEWS” time fillers and pearl clutching—is what cable news relies on the majority of the time spent between revolutions and natural disasters. It’s an increasingly tiresome model of political and current events coverage.

Aside from Fox News (as evidenced by the ratings), MSNBC’s Morning Joe (as evidenced by its status as a tastemaker), and comedy shows like the Daily Show and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and HBO’s Real Time (by virtue of their place in the cultural zeitgeist), politics on TV doesn’t seem to be as good anymore. Maybe it’s just me. Then again, cable news ratings are down more or less across the board, and Americans find much of the media untrustworthy.

There are other exceptions, no doubt. But whether it’s cable news or the Sunday morning talk shows, something just doesn’t seem right. One gets the sense that they’re flailing, that the world has changed, but they haven’t. That they’re trying to figure out how to make it work, but so far it’s not coming together.

And I think it’s worth noting that among the shows that I believe to be “working” include several examples that are, ostensibly, comedy. And that makes me wonder if maybe the networks and shows might not want to look to them for guidance? And, of course, they already are: Jon Stewart was seriously considered as host for Meet The Press, a move that would have either changed the whole damn paradigm—or failed spectacularly. But the larger question lingers: Why do these shows work, while much of what passes for straight political commentary and analysis (not to be confused with straight news) seem so stale?

A theory: As our political system—not to mention our coverage of it—becomes more absurd, there’s a natural yearning to point out that absurdity in a way a show like Meet the Press is not equipped to handle. MTP and shows like it are all about how serious this is. These are senators, don’t ya know—statesmen. It’s like the whole format is left over from the Washington that existed in an Allen Drury novel, a time before the message was controlled and you rose in the ranks on your ability to avoid gaffes and raise cash.

Our politics—our culture at large, really—now disincentivizes loose informality when it comes to political coverage. It’s really quite schizophrenic: we urge you to be loose and fun and interesting, but we’ll crucify you if you trip up. It’s all absurd, yes, but don’t take it lightly! seems to be the mantra, and there’s a million tripwires to look out for if you’re a senator talking on a set. So we settle on this arrangement that has this sort of bloodless/uber-serious political coverage on the one hand, and Jon Stewart absurdity on the other. A politician or pundit screws up on one, and is made fun of on the other.

But there’s a missing middle ground here—a warm wit, a little mischievous but not cynical—that Sunday shows kind of miss now.

I’m not advocating that we dumb down political analysis and chase the lowest common denominator. Quite the opposite. The irony is that shows that are meant to be funny are often also the smarter shows. There is a long tradition of Swiftian satire, and in this regard, the comedy shows are selling themselves short when they cast themselves as mere “entertainment.” One could argue that they are providing a service—and a service that could be replicated by other outlets and media.

But as faking sincerity is difficult, replicating insouciance is a challenge. It helps to have fun, smart hosts who don’t have an ideological ax to grind. That’s not to say Stewart and Oliver and Maher (just to mention three) don’t have a point of view; they tend to universally lean leftward. But they are probably more intellectually honest—more willing to call their own team for BS—than most political commentators.

They’re also funny. For them, the rule has to be to “be funny first.” You can have an agenda, but it’s always second fiddle to being funny. Or, if your show is about ideas, then I think it has to be intellectually stimulating first. My point here is that scoring political points probably can’t come first, at least if believe this is the model that works best.

Here, talent is important, too. There were a lot of things about that infamous Jon Stewart rant on Crossfire that I thought were unfair, but one thing he got completely right is that being funny is harder than doing political commentary. On the other hand, Stewart and Oliver and Maher have some huge advantages over their political interlocutors, such as a team of writers helping them come up with one-liners. They’re also held to a lower standard, partly at their own insistence, allowing them to quickly move back and forth between serious public-service style journalism and “we’re all just having fun” irreverence.

So I leave you with this: Could a cable network—tasked with providing content 24/7 replicate the quality of these shows, day in and day out? There’s probably no way that would happen. It’s so much easier and cheaper to book guests to gab about the news of the day. There’s little time or money for flying the perfect guest—maybe a smart author—across the country to have an elevated discussion. But it could work as a model for the Sunday shows which, let’s face it, would benefit from a little more levity.

Political commentary will slowly evolve, and what I think we’re witnessing right now is a kind of transitional period—an adolescence, if you will, and that’s rarely an attractive stage. The current formula for TV news isn’t working, and the networks know it, but they haven’t quite figured out what will replace it. Yes, there will always be a place for serious discussion about policy, but this much seems obvious: A decade from now, political punditry will look very different. And I’m betting on the funny guys.