The Decline of TV Political News

Stuart Rothenberg, one of the nation’s preeminent pollsters has a scathing indictment of the current state of TV political coverage. Rather than providing an opportunity for viewers to get a wide range of opinions, TV political coverage is now largely about attracting the most rabid partisans:

Chris Matthews is a smart, politically astute observer of politics, but my last appearance convinced me that “Hardball” has evolved from a straight political news program with quality guests to one that has more in common with its network’s prime-time slant. Like most of the evening programming on MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, “Hardball” has become a partisan, heavily ideological sledgehammer clearly intended to beat up one party and one point of view.

During the show on which I appeared, Matthews referred more than once to Republicans as “Luddites” and took every opportunity imaginable to portray them as crackpots. The show’s topics inevitably pander to the most liberal Democratic viewers and present Republicans and conservatives in the least flattering of terms.

I don’t mean to single out Matthews for criticism because he actually understands politics and I believe that he would prefer to do a serious political show. Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and the newest addition to MSNBC’s unfortunate lineup, Ed Schultz, are far worse than “Hardball.”

The reality is that TV news is based around appealing to the lowest common denominator—and there are a dwindling number of worthwhile TV news programs available. For example, while FOX is famous for the blowhards Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, they do have some very good straight political coverage and Brit Hume’s nightly show was one of the best in the industry. However, their bread-and-butter was in “opinion journalism” (an oxymoron if ever there was one). FOX had good political coverage, and for all their supposed conservative bias they did a good job of reporting on serious matters as well.

MSNBC, however, decided to become a cargo-cult version of FOX News with a leftward tilt. They managed to find an ego as big as Bill O’Reilly’s with an even bigger chip on his shoulder in the form of Keith Olbermann. Olbermann has all the tact and grace of a rabid pit-bull that just ate PCP-laced dog food. In his world, Republicans make Nazis look like Boy Scouts—making him unwatchable by anyone who doesn’t share a similarly rabid worldview. The execrable Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow are in a similar vein.

Sadly, there just doesn’t seem to be an appetite for hard news on TV these days—if you want to be informed about the world, you use the Internet and get the facts for yourself. Right now, TV news is used in the same way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support rather than illumination.

Perhaps if Chris Matthews had declined to allow himself to be prostituted out to MSNBC’s brand of acid-drenched partisanship it would have saved Hardball from becoming a mockery of itself. If more journalists wanted to report the facts rather than spin them the state of TV journalism would be better. However, that would require some serious intellectual diversity, and journalism in general is a monoculture. FOX has done yeoman’s work in allowing a different perspective to have a voice, but it’s set a standard for valuing kneejerk “opinion” over strong journalism. The rest of the TV networks are copying the worst of that model.

TV news networks are hemorrhaging viewers, and given this race to the bottom, it’s not hard to understand why.

The Best Show On Television Returns

Battlestar Galactica Season 4 Promo Image

Battlestar Galactica is the best show on television. Even after four years, it still seems just a little crazy to say that. After all, the original was one of the schlockiest shows created, a grab bag of Star Wars mixed with Mormon theology and sci-fi cliche. The brilliance of Ronald D. Moore’s remake is that it takes the essential part of the Galactica story and turns it into what good sci-fi should be: a story that takes relevant issues to our times and puts them in a new context that gets the audience to think critically about our world.

Galactica is one of those shows that reinvents an entire genre. Instead of the sterility of Star Trek, Galactica plunges us into a gritty and realistic world. Instead of cookie-cutter characters who can do no wrong, the characters on Galactica are flawed, make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are deadly. Instead of cheesy dialog and unrealistic technology, Galactica was conceived in such a way that a viewer could easily mistake it for a historical drama set on an aircraft carrier. The whole point of these changes is to make Galactica more relevant to our times. We can identify with Admiral Adama because he’s not the sort of perfect leader who can do no wrong, but a realistically portrayed human being faced with an impossible situation.

This will be the fourth and final season. Unlike shows that draw on forever, well passed their expiry date (I’m looking at you, X-Files), Galactica is going to tell a self-contained story. It’s a gutsy move to end a popular show, but it would be easy for a show like Galactica to fall into cliche and collapse under its own weight. Every season, Galactica has done something to radically alter the very nature of the show—few shows on TV are so daring.

Usually, the first episode after a series’ pilot is the singularly worst episode of the series. Everyone’s still finding the character, trying to get ahold of the series’ budget, and the writers are still trying to figure out what the show is really about. “33”—the first regular episode of Batlestar Galactica is one of the best scripted TV episodes ever created. It’s tense, it’s daring, and it is relentless in setting the tone for the entire show. Even among the cast it’s a favorite. A show that can start that strongly is a rare thing indeed, and if Galactica can go out with as much strength as had at the beginning, it will have cemented itself as one of the top TV dramas ever created.

The fourth and final season premieres tonight on the SCI FI Channel.