A Proposal to Save TV News from Itself

Benzene over at Benzene 4 (via Andrew Gelman):

Months ago, I read a serious analysis of the dynamics and economics of the news business. (Alas, I don’t remember where.) Among the observations was that a TV journalist’s career success is strongly correlated to how well-known he is to the audience, which in turn is strongly correlated to how much face time he gets. When you watch an interview on TV, if most of what you see are is person being interviewed, you won’t remember the journalist so much. If more of your time is devoted to watching and hearing the interviewer talk, he’ll be more recognizable next time. The latter probably does not make for a better interview, but it does make for a better chance of the journalist getting more gigs.

Quite likely, some ambitious journalists are well aware of this and they make a concerted effort to maximize their face time in furtherance of their careers. But even if they don’t do it on purpose, the result is the same. If some journalists tend to hog the screen just by natural inclination, those hogs are going to become better-known; that will get them more gigs, which will make them even more well-known, driving out the meeker journalists who prefer to let the interviewee do most of the talking.

This is why we have a news media full of obnoxious TV journalists who hound their guests with stupid and unanswerable “gotcha” questions. This is why, on the rare occasion that a guest actually tries to explain something with more than one sentence, the interviewer loudly interrupts, “Stop dodging the question, Senator. Give me an answer, yes or no!” This interruption is essential to the interviewer’s viability as a journalist. Without it, the camera might stay off him for more than ten precious seconds.

With that in mind, I want to make a deal with the journalists: Let’s agree that from now on the TV cameras will always be pointed at the guy who isn’t talking. I realize that’s stupid. Obviously, I’d rather see the facial expression of the person who is saying something. But if that’s the price we have to pay to get journalists to shut the hell up and let the guest talk, it would be worth it.