What We Talk About When We Talk About Debate

Alessandra Stanley, writing in The New York Times about the addition of Al Sharpton to MSNBC’s nighttime lineup, says:

And in the evening at least, MSNBC is less a news provider than a carousel of liberal opinion — potential conflicts of interest are swept aside in the swirl of excitable guests.

Unfortunately, so is conflict. There is almost no real debate on any of these evening shows: a conservative is brought on and put on the spot, then in a different segment two people who agree with the host on a given issue answer the host’s questions, usually, with words like “you’re so right.”

She has set a stage of partisanship, CNN at the center, MSNBC and Fox at the wings. Debate, she implies, happens only at the center, where people from both wings can intermingle in a fair fight.

But is that really debate?  Is what we see on CNN any more debate than what happens on Fox and MSNBC?  The guests on CNN, if from different viewpoints, talk over each other as much as even guests who agree do on the other two stations.  No one listens; each person (each host as well, even CNN hosts) has an allegiance to a particular stance, a stance that keeps them in the money by keeping their profile clear and simple–and understandable to news-channel programmers.  They don’t dare change their views and haven’t the time, in the short segments allocated on news television, to respond adequately to the views of others–so they ignore them.  Or, at best, make fun of them.

CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all traffic in entertainment, not news, and they invite entertainers as guests, entertainers who have each developed as identifiable a public persona as Ish Kabibble or Captain Kangaroo.  These entertainers are not going to step out of character to engage in real debate.  To do so would be to sabotage their future guest appearances, their future income.

Criticizing MSNBC for lacking debate (especially when tacitly claiming CNN provides it) is like criticizing a donkey for not being a donkephant, a cross between donkey and elephant.  It’s useless.  And rather silly.

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