StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

Perils of a Talking Head

14 Oct 2009
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

Anyone who regularly does TV interviews knows that one is always required to do a pre-interview in which a producer feels you out as to what you will say in response to certain hypothetical questions. It would be simpler if they just came out and said, "We are looking for someone to go on air and say Obama is the anti-Christ (or whatever). Are you willing to do that?"

Such a method, however, is crass and offends the dignity of potential guests, so instead the producer will talk around the issue. She (they are almost always female) will say something like this: "We are thinking about doing a segment on whether Obama is the anti-Christ and looking for guests who will debate this topic. If we had you on what would your take be?"

If you say that the idea is ridiculous you will be thanked and the producer will move on to the next name on her list. Eventually she will find a crazy person like Alan Keyes to say what she wants him to say or someone so desperate to be on TV that he will play Devil's Advocate and pretend to believe that Obama is the anti-Christ for the sake of 5 minutes of air time.

Sometimes, however, the producer hasn't been fully clued in to what it is she is supposed to do and accidentally books a guest unwilling to play the proper role. When this happens, the guest will later get a call canceling his appearance on the grounds that the segment "went in a different direction" or similar BS.

I bring all this up because a friend of mine, economist Richard Rahn, recently had a segment on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer canceled. In this case, however, it wasn't because he had the wrong point of view, but because the show found a better guest to say the same thing. Again, this is part of the game. Policy wonks all know that if a producer can bag a congressman or senator to make his point he is going to get bumped. No problem.

What is funny about Richard's experience is that he wasn't bumped for a bigger name, but for another economist prepared to make his points in the form of rap. I'm not making this up. For a segment on the economics of John Maynard Keynes, this news program found someone who apparently has produced a rap video on the subject. Here is the relevant portion of the e-mail Richard got canceling his appearance:

"We just learned that Russ Roberts, a professor of economics at George Mason University, who was our second choice for the anti-Keynes position, is shooting a rap video about Keynes and Hayek next week in New York.  He has written the lyrics (they are quite good), hired rappers and musicians, and tapped professional music video producers  --  there will be bling, babes, limos, the works." (My emphasis)

Richard received this e-mail as he and I were having dinner and I almost fell on the floor laughing. The absurdity of being rejected for an economist who brings bling, babes and limos to the table was bad enough. The idea of making a rap video about Keynesian economics made it even more absurd. But what really cracked me up was the idea of Russ Roberts doing this. Even by the standards of economics professors he's pretty nerdy. I can't even begin to imagine how he could do a rap video of anything, let alone Keynesian economics.

I don't know when or if Roberts' video will make it on to the NewsHour, but I hope it does, if only to see how he explains liquidity preference.

Who knew Newshour cared about

Who knew Newshour cared about entertainment value! It's always been the best news program on TV, but if that's the kind of call they are making now, well, to paraphrase LBJ about Cronkite, if we've lost Newshour, we've lost the entire news media.

Maybe next they'll have Kudlow on. Ya' know, just to keep clowning things up to hold the attention of the masses of A.D.D. "news" viewers.

Russ Roberts

is, of course, the host of EconTalk, where either (1) he and other G-Mu profs hyper each other into frenzies or (2) he asks respectful questions of an economist for about 35 minutes, and then detours into his own obsessions for the final 25.

(I say this as one who enjoys many of those talks, and has recommended them to students before.)

He's also a novelist

Not one who's going to make you forget Tolstoi, but he has written three novels explicating economics principles. One of which, 'The Choice', is just about as good a demonstration of how free trade benefits nations as there is available.

I take this to mean that you have not yet seen "Still a Boss".

I can't help but think that this decision was influenced by the Daily Show's music video from last Thursday. It seems to me that many news shows are attempting to emulate Jon Stewart's success.


Don't confuse TV with actual News -- only rarely do the twain meet --

What makes this so sad is it was the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" that canceled, and the usual nonsense financial tv . . .

I beg to differ

Russ, let me know when you are giving your next concert, may I open for you?

Absurd Derivations

Its still hard to fathom an "anti-Keynes" economist being taken seriously. (Maybe they'll have an anti-Einstein mathematician or an anti-Mendel biologist in the next segment.) The fact that he does this to rap actually seems rather appropriate.

When are we going to finally banish this nonsense of the omniscient "free" market once and for all?

Just for Fun

Just for the record, this post was intended to be funny; not an attack on the NewsHour, a program I respect and have appeared on occasionally. I just thought the idea of a rap video about Keynesian economics featuring bling and babes was too funny not to post something about. In the interest of fairness, here is the NewsHour's response to my post:

Solman, whose outstanding

Solman, whose outstanding segments I have appreciated for many years, quotes my comment (upthread, Oct 14) and states (emphasis added):

Mr. Bartlett's post was in jest...The lesson I draw from all that it's hard to get a handle on "voice" in the blogosphere...Is the blogger kidding? Clearly, the commenter on Mr. Bartlett's blog misread his intent. As did I.

Ironically, but actually inadvertently supporting Solman's point, my comment, too, was largely tongue-in-cheek. While I did -- and do -- indeed view the decision Bruce described (and Bruce's intended characterization) as NewsHour opting for pop entertainment value over substance (a view that Solman's post supports rather than refutes or diminishes), I did not seriously mean to suggest that this decision was a sign that NewsHour has or will descend to the infotainment-tainted style of many of the programs we see on the commercial news networks. NewsHour is in a class of its own, offering much more seriousness, depth, and thoughtful discussion/debate than the commercial news networks generally, and I expect it to stay that way.

What I don't get, except perhaps as a bit of disagreement over degree, is why Solman seems to think that a key part of the story was omitted in Bruce's account, and that it would have been a mischaracterization to portray NewsHour's decision as one of style over substance. Again, Solman's own post seems to support that characterization. Below is from the producer's email to Rahn:

While I agree with Diane that -- of the several people she contacted -- you make THE strongest case against Keynesian economics, Paul and I have decided to go with someone else instead.

The reason is almost absurd, but at this late hour I feel I owe you a full explanation:

We just learned that Russ Roberts, a professor of economics at George Mason University, who was our second choice for the anti-Keynes position, is shooting a rap video about Keynes and Hayek...He has written the lyrics (they are quite good), hired rappers and musicians, and tapped professional music video producers -- there will be bling, babes, limos, the works...

our stories are used in high school and college classrooms throughout the United States, and we are always striving to come up with some angle to capture and hold kids' attention.

Assuming the above email was sincere about Rahn getting bumped for a guy with a rap video despite Rahn making "THE strongest case", the only thing that Solman's post adds to the essential picture of NewsHour having traded off substance for style (pop entertainment) is the specific point of wanting to "capture and hold kids' attention", which, while one can contend is justified in this case or in general (as with any effort to grow audience for worthwhile information even at the expense of quality), doesn't change the nature of the decision.

And personally, I'd rather NewsHour not make the choice they did. Perhaps they should produce NewsHour For Kids (or "For the Classroom") if funds permit (or if it can be self-financing) rather than choosing an inferior guest because he has a rap video.

Re: Just for fun

Just for the record, this post was intended to be funny...

It was funny. I got it.

(But also for the record, it is very hard to convey "tone of voice" in blog posts/e-mail/newsgroups, and always risky to assume the audience "got it" right -- a lesson administered to me many times. And also to people like Bill Gates when put on the witness stand to explain what they really meant "by those words...")

MacNeil-Lehrer _used_ to be...

"It's always been the best news program on TV."

Given the general spiral of decline of all TV news, this may still be true, but I'm forced to say, also, that The News Hour _used_ to be an interesting and informative program, but lost its way about 10 years ago. Even in the 90s, it was falling more and more into 'he-said, she-said' talking head debates that (as noted here) seemed staged. Moreover, guests (especially Congressional guests) learned how to game to format years ago -- mostly continuing an endless string sentence whenever given the mic, and talking over the other speaker if s/he tried to cut in -- but the News Hour never found a way to manage that gaming, which made watching it fairly pointless. In the last few years, all the reporting I've seen (admittedly, I've stopped watching except when working out) has gotten even more cautious, hyper-"balanced" ("Is the earth round? Two voices discuss this important issue..."). And lately, I'm pretty sure that the program's being largely beholden to large insurers for funding (look at the list, for TNH and for PBS/NPR in general), has drawn the network's fangs in reporting on health care finance issues. Judy Woodruff's "balanced" panels of an insurance company representative, two Republicans and a Blue Dog seem all too typical, nowadays.

There's a reason that good punditry is killing bad news programs, one way or anther. The Daily Show, PBS's pundit shows, and even CNN with its endless rounds of shills, at least make it pretty clear where the speakers are coming from, while information is available on the Web.

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