I recently started to go through boxes of decaying videotapes that chronicle my occasional notoriety in order to "digitalize" the salvageable. After 35 years of appearances, from good to bad to ugly, here's my wish for the New Year: better television news.
I have a few modest proposals.
First, cable television needs to use fewer contracted commentators and more people with authentic expertise. Much as I like James Carville, I have decided that even he is not an expert on everything. (As for the ubiquitous group of persons labeled "Republican strategist" or "Democratic strategist," you can usually count on them to be experts on nothing.)
I know there is a reason for having "on-call" hired commentators who are willing to opine on everything. Some of us "experts" aren't always available at the time some network wants us. Candidly, even if we're available, we'd sometimes just rather be somewhere else, like Dreamland. Thanks, "Fox and Friends," but I'm not getting up at 5 a.m. for a three-minute "hit" at 6:30 even if you send the limo you always so graciously are willing to provide.
Nevertheless, the persistent opinionating by the same stable of guests about everything from ants on a crucifix to deadly zoo animals can become a gigantic bore.
Fewer sound bites, more analysis
Second, network news needs to cease and desist from using so many "conclusory" sound bites. When a tax bill is passed that cuts taxes for the wealthy, it does the public no good to be shown a Democrat who says in her six seconds that the tax cut is bad because it will hurt the poor and a Republican who says in his six seconds that a tax cut will help the rich and the poor.
Those are conclusions. We need some analysis of complex issues. What is the evidence that tax cuts filter money downward and expand business and jobs? Alternatively, are there data to show that rich people will hoard their extra money or invest it overseas without any beneficial return for the rest of us?
Don't get me wrong. I like sound bites. I like giving them. I'm good at them. Why, my sound bites have been used by Howard Stern and Jon Stewart. I was the "quote of the day" twice in The New York Times. But a few clever plays on words or ideas is at best a starting point for policy.
Third, could we have a few cable shows that don't have hosts -- opinionated or otherwise? For example, a Boston television station in the 1980s had an admittedly short-lived program where two people with opposite points of view sat across from each other and had a conversation. It got disputative sometimes, but it wasn't a fight caused by an opinionated host taking one side or throwing in some extraneous collateral issue. Of course, I love opinionated hosts some of the time -- Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, Judge Andrew Napolitano. And when we had powerfully opinionated dual dueling hosts in the best days of CNN's "Crossfire," that was fine too. But, ladies and gentlemen hosts, we guests don't always need you.
A "news strip"
Finally, I want to suggest something an actual acclaimed TV producer couldn't get any network to air. The late Warren Steibel was the longtime producer of William F. Buckley Jr.'s "Firing Line" and its specials. He was a big liberal, but he loved Buckley's abilities on television. Warren had me on many episodes over the years, but once over lunch told me how frustrated he was that he could never sell a "news strip." (No, this was not a prescient precursor to the Internet's popular "Naked News" -- and there will no link to that here.)
Dick Cavett used to permit that, and watching antiwar vet John Kerry debate Navy veteran John O'Neill on Cavett's show in 1971 was a better look at Kerry's competence than any interview he did as a presidential candidate.
By the way, if any television executives want to follow up on this with me, we can "do lunch" anytime the first week in January.
Barry W. Lynn is the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and an attorney. Read more of his work on Red Room or in his book, "Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom."
My Wish for 2011 -- An AOL News Year-End Special
We asked a dozen top writers to share their wishes for the New Year. Click on any headline to read what they hope will happen in 2011.
- Better TV News – By Barry W. Lynn
- A Better World for My Daughter – By G. Willow Wilson
- More Companies That Don't Suck – By Dave Logan
- More Progress for Women – By Talia Carner
- A Just Transition to Clean Energy – By Jeff Biggers
- Closing the Happiness Gap – By Catherine Ryan Hyde
- Honor for the Kalahari Bushmen – By James G. Workman
- The Courage to Ask Questions – By Sonya Huber
- More Adoptions – By Brett Battles
- A Smile, Freely Given – By J.T. Ellison
- We Stop Kicking the Can Down the Road – By Rebecca York
- A Better Next Decade – Kate Clinton