Rosen’s modest proposal

ROSEN’S MODEST PROPOSAL…. The estimable Jay Rosen recently explained that “the Sunday morning talk shows are broken,” and that the entire format should be “re-thought, or junked so the news divisions can start over with a new premise.”

To help, the NYU professor offers a straightforward, easy-to-implement fix. As Rosen wrote in a message to “Meet the Press'” executive producer, “Fact check what your guests say on Sunday and run it online Wednesday.”

Now I don’t contend this would solve the problem of the Sunday shows, which is structural. But it might change the dynamic a little bit. Whoever was bullshitting us more could expect to hear about it from Meet the Press staff on Wednesday. The midweek fact check (in the spirit of Politifact.com, which could even be hired for the job…) might, over time, exert some influence on the speakers on Sunday. At the very least, it would guide the producers in their decisions about whom to invite back.

The midweek fact check would also give David Gregory a way out of his puppy game of gotcha. Instead of telling David Axelrod that his boss promised to change the tone in Washington so why aren’t there any Republican votes for health care? … which he thinks is getting “tough” with a guest, Gregory’s job would simply be to ask the sort of questions, the answers to which could be fact checked later in the week. Easy, right?

The beauty of this idea is that it turns the biggest weakness of political television — the fact that time is expensive, and so complicated distortions, or simple distortions about complicated matters, are rational tactics for advantage-seeking pols — into a kind of strength. The format beckons them to evade, deny, elide, demagogue and confuse…. but then they pay for it later if they give into temptation and make that choice. So imagine the midweek fact check from last week as a short segment wrapping up the show the following week. Now you have an incentive system that’s at least pointed in the right direction.

I imagine hosting a show is awfully difficult. When a guest tells a blatant falsehood, the host may not know it’s a blatant falsehood, or may not have time to delve into the dishonesty in any depth on the air. And since guests can lie and still get invited back, there’s no real incentive to tell the truth — indeed, charlatans are rewarded when their lies reach the audience, which almost certainly won’t see/hear the fact-checking from Politifact, Media Matters, ThinkProgress, etc.

If guests knew the shows themselves would actually report to the audience who is and isn’t telling the truth, they’d have an incentive to be honest. If producers/hosts knew their shows would start taking an interest in fact-checking, they might even stop inviting transparent liars back on the air so often.

And if viewers knew there might be a way to know who is and isn’t telling the truth, and there’d be a modicum of accountability, they might be more inclined to tune in. At that point, the shows would be serving a purpose, which would be a step in the right direction.