A few months ago, a producer for HuffPo Live contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in doing a segment. The punditry panel I was a part of took place the day before the election and focused on the typical cable news minutiae: Romney’s last rally in Ohio, Sarah Palin’s late-endorsement of him, the effect of Hurricane Sandy on poll numbers. On the panel were people far, far more experienced in this sort of thing than I was, and I was marched over quite easily. Not that it was any nature of debate; I and everyone else on the panel were proud liberals. Nor was anyone rude; I was just way too nice. What astounded me was at no point did anyone question who I was or why I was there. The producers didn’t even ask for credentials. On the website, they call me a “blogger” (a word that sounds like something which lives in a swamp just east of Hogwarts). What the hell was I doing there?
If you turn to one of the 24-hour networks right now, presumably you’ll see a grid of experts, authors, and politicians debating gun control, Jack Lew’s signature, whathaveyou. Most of them are very well-read and very well-educated on their chosen topic. But a chosen few seem to have no expertise other than what they’re doing. Most of the hosts you see on cable news have background in communications. Sean Hannity, for example, has no advanced schooling to speak of. In fact, he got his start volunteering at UCSB radio station but was cancelled after telling a lesbian “I feel sorry for your child” (and in a great thrust of irony was offered the job back after pressure against the college by dartboard of conservatives the ACLU). Not that college attendance is the sole measure of a person’s worth, but his job is to discuss and hand out opinions on some fairly large subjects. He has zero political experience yet has authored three books on how to defeat liberalism. Glenn Beck got his start as a morning zoo jockey and tells you exactly how afraid you should be of the UN. Keith Olbermann started in sports media. Ed Schultz, too.
I began thinking about the qualifications it takes to run your mouth on TV after hearing Britney Spears and The X Factor had parted ways after a mere 8 months. She was hired to judge the singing competition because a) She has a 13 year history in the music industry and has seen its highs and lows and b) who knows, maybe she’ll throw up on Demi Lovato or something. But as Buzzfeed pointed out, “Worse than breaking down on camera, she became the safest of the judges.” WHAT?! You mean the engaged mother of two happened to be a calm and collected individual? A tragedy for American viewing audiences.
Britney Spears was probably the most qualified person on The X Factor to judge a singing competition. Demi Lovato, while popular amongst tweens, has little chance of being remembered in the next few years. L.A. Reid has pushed such legends as Mariah Carey, Kanye West, and Outkast and has a proven record as a label A&R man, but his performance career is limited to backing up true platinum artists. And Simon Cowell? Simon Cowell has founded more TV shows seeking superstars than he has actual superstars. He shat on the most famous American Idol winner, Kelly Clarkson, the entire run of that show’s first season. He’s attached himself to Il Divo, otherwise known as the soundtrack for your great-aunt’s grocery trip. And his biggest success of late has been One Direction, a band that not only lost on The X Factor’s UK show but will also be doing rich girls’ birthday parties before they finish puberty. So why is Simon Cowell the canonized saint of judging music while a true pop star was brought on as a gimmick?
A general theme of cable news is that the media is biased against whatever side you’re on, when that’s really a half-truth. All media outlets — and, more importantly, individual journalists — have some partisan bias from time to time, some more than others. But the truth is the 24-hour networks are truly addicted to the same thing singing competitions are: drama. It doesn’t matter who’s on the screen; as long as they put on a good show. Cable news regularly loses in ratings to reality TV and sports and they know it. And while it is important to put on a good show and be informative, the former tends to win out over the latter (read: the Piers Morgan and Alex Jones clusterfuck). And if the cable news networks could learn a lot from NPR, The X Factor and American Idol could learn a lot from The Voice.
When NPR is having a discussion on gun control, they leave the pundits out to dry and get experts and scholars. The Voice follows the same format: Who better to train wannabe pop stars than actual pop stars? American Idol has just recently caught on to this, hiring Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj (I’d mention Steven Tyler’s stint on the show, but his sole purpose was hitting on girls a fourth of his age). But while The Voice has war-buddy rib-poking between its hosts (though it’s clearly evident Christina Aguilera hates everyone), American Idol is working overtime to stir drama between Roman Zolanski and the Queen of the Fifth Octave for the same reason Sean Hannity and Ed Schultz still exist on primetime. The narrative rules all. The show must go on.