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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Bruce Bartlett: Talking Heads

Bruce Bartlett on "talking heads" in the news media:

Talking Heads, by Bruce Bartlett: In this morning's Wall Street Journal, my friend Brian Wesbury complains about the "talking head" culture on business television where every interview seems designed to provoke debate. If one of the guests is a bull, Brian says, then the other has to be a bear. If there is only one guest, he says, the interviewer generally plays Devil's advocate.

The result, Wesbury says, is that viewers are often misled into thinking that there is a great deal of disagreement among economists when in fact there may be a virtual consensus. By seeking out a few incompetents or cranks just to have "balance" and create sparks, news shows may be unintentionally misleading viewers by implying that isolated views that are well outside the mainstream actually have validity. ...

This is a pet peeve of my own and a reason why I avoid these sorts of programs. One thing that annoyed me particularly was that the producers would often put me up against some total nobody who had no clue about what he was talking about. In one case--I kid you not--I debated the minimum wage with an honest-to-God, fresh-off-the-streets homeless person. I refused to ever appear on that channel ever again and it eventually went off the air. ...

I don't mind debating those whose views are diametrically opposed to mine. In fact, I enjoy a good debate... I know that we can probably agree on the facts and will argue along predictable lines. But too many producers find such sober discussions to be boring, so they try to liven things up by setting up debates with people who make up their own facts, argue illogically, make no effort to be consistent, and, too often, use up most of the alloted air time. Thus you end up wasting your own time refuting the other guy's errors rather than making your own points.

This is not an ideological problem. I know that my friends on the left are just as frustrated by the system as I am. And the problem is not isolated to economic discussions but extends into every area of news...

I have noticed that over the years there has been a dumbing-down of the talking heads. Whereas previously the two heads would belong to noted experts from respected institutions, today they are more likely to be labeled "Democratic consultant" or "Republican strategist." These people are often so obscure that when I do a Google search on them there is no evidence that they even exist.

I know that the artificial debate format is not going to go away. But maybe it would be possible for the networks to encourage those conducting the interviews to be a little more proactive when one of the guests goes off on a tangent or makes outrageous claims with no factual basis. They should behave more like baseball umpires than boxing referees who just want to keep it clean.

I am not sure what the right answer is. The false, misleading ideas driven by politics, ideology, pursuit of profit, etc., are out there looking for a place to express themselves, and forums such as talk shows and opinion pages are a key place where that occurs. One hope is that news agencies, talk shows, and so on will not invite people on the air or print their views if they are not credible brokers. But that requires the news agencies actually knowing the difference, to understand the underlying theoretical and empirical evidence, and that seems to be a big hurdle. It also requires them to look beyond ratings and entertainment value, which is understandably difficult. It's a hurdle they should be able to get over, credible and entertaining are not mutually exclusive, but don't seem to be able to. I think a lot, or at least some of the "he said-she said" journalism (particularly in print) is not for "balance" for the sake of balance, where balance here means a view from two sides, but rather it's because the reporter does not have any idea which side is correct and tries to cover all the bases.

So the question for me is, if these ides are going to be expressed one way or the other, then what's the best way to rebut them? Do we refuse to go on shows, call reporters idiots, and generally make their lives as miserable as possible from blogs, etc. in the hopes of changing their behavior, i.e. in the hope they won't invite these people on their shows or present their views in their stories? Do we give these ideas credibility by simply engaging with the people who are promoting them, or does engaging show the problems with their arguments and undermine their positions?

I think these people are going to appear in the the media one way or the other and I am more likely than Bruce to advocate an active role in trying to rebut them. It's a fine line - I often don't engage with things I see because shining a light on the views gives them an audience, and I don't want to do that. But if it's an idea I see a lot, or if it's from a person who has been pushing nonsense repeatedly, then I am likely to react, perhaps more so than Bruce. I see no need to debate someone literally dragged off the street as in the story above, but there are people and ideas that do require rebuttal no matter how annoyed I am that they are even in the public discourse.

    Posted by on Thursday, August 9, 2007 at 11:34 AM in Economics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (13)


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