Defying convention

There was a time when television news was boring. When stone-faced, gray-haired anchors soberly announced, without any particular flair, the events of the day and then signed off. No commentary. No punditry or analysis. Just the facts.

It was not a particularly lucrative model for networks. In fact, it was a money loser but considered a public service duty as a condition of their FCC licenses. Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke brought in the profits, while the evening news was essentially a charitable write-off.

Today, television news is dominated by highly profitable cable networks who have developed a model that presents news as entertainment through a variety of programming innovations. We see younger, more attractive anchors. The coverage leans toward more sensational topics. And less sensational topics are presented with a sense of urgency (“BREAKING:”) that overhypes the subject. And finally, with 24 hours to fill each day, networks devote an increasing amount of airtime to reflection, analysis and debate. These three activities, and particularly the last, have given birth to what I’d call the punditry class — a group of people, typically ex-politicians, military leaders, scholars, authors, minor celebrities and other public figures who bring whatever expertise they have to the discussion at hand. And watching them hammer away at each other adds a uniquely entertaining flavor to what is otherwise an academic exercise.

The punditry phenomenon didn’t emerge as an epiphany from the offices of brilliant cable news executives. But you can bet they were paying attention when it was so skillfully demonstrated, long before the advent of cable, during the 1968 presidential campaign. It was then that relative news neophyte ABC, in a money-saving move, eschewed gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions and instead staged debates in what is now the classic left-vs.-right format.

Representing each side were the preeminent political thinkers of their time, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, who agreed to a series of televised debates as a way of digesting the convention coverage. Featured in the 2015 documentary “Best of Enemies,” the conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal were intellectual giants, unmatched in any forum, until they met each other. Their hubris and arrogance was self-righteous at best, insufferable at worst, earning them devotees and critics alike who were all too happy to see either of them knocked down a peg on national TV.

The premise must’ve seemed tempting for viewers accustomed to the mindless minutia of a political convention, but the appeal only grew as the personal hostility between Buckley and Vidal became sharply evident. Throughout the summer the debates devolved into shouting matches of a particularly vindictive and, amazingly for such great minds, childish nature. Viewers became spectators, tuning in for knockout zingers rather than a succession of mental thrusts and parries. It all boiled over when Buckley, goaded by Vidal’s “crypto-Nazi” taunt, countered with a vicious tirade punctuated by a homosexual epithet and physical threat. The stunned network shut down the show, but as the lights came down, the smirking Vidal, presuming himself the winner, quipped to his still flushed rival that “we gave them their money’s worth.”

And that’s what it was all about. The debates earned ABC derision among its established, “proper” competitors, but the network got the last laugh. The experiment effectively ended gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions, and plans for the 1972 campaign included enthusiastic nods to the Buckley-Vidal model. It was cheaper, less labor intensive and, most importantly, a ratings winner.

That’s the model cable networks have picked up on and what has since largely dominated television news. Is it a win for the viewers? Few of the pundits on the air today have the intellectual chops of a William F. Buckley or Gore Vidal, and with the substance of the discussion often getting lost in the shouting, the scale tilts heavily towards entertainment at the expense of information. But it’s not boring.

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