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Globe Editorial

Back off, critics — TV news benefits from fresher voices

Eliot Spitzer Eliot Spitzer (Associated Press)
August 10, 2010

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THERE ARE signs of more intelligent life in TV news, but critics, channeling what Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair called “the inside-baseball television-news diaspora,’’ are trying hard to snuff it out.

CNN, overhauling its evening lineup, recently announced a prime-time show co-hosted by former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker. The blowback couldn’t have been stronger if the network had chosen Tony Hayward and Rielle Hunter. Yes, Spitzer will forever be marred by his use of prostitutes, but the demise of his political career has freed him up to be far more candid than the average moonlighting politico. Parker, a voice of common-sense conservatism, is notable for her willingness to break with the GOP herd; in 2008, she wrote that Sarah Palin lacked important qualifications for national office.

Another “Crossfire’’ this won’t be: Spitzer and Parker will probably be unpredictable and sometimes contrarian. They might even agree on some things — an entirely welcome development. Throwing ideological chum to the partisan masses will always draw ratings, but it rarely leaves viewers better informed.

The fate of CNN is of more than casual interest, because it is the lone holdout on cable news promising in-depth reporting and non-ideological analysis. Its rivals, Fox and MSNBC, have chosen to preach to the converted, fueling a culture of outrage and denunciation. Their effects on American political dialogue have been widely noted, and widely condemned. CNN is the best hope for a revival of traditional news values on cable.

Broadcast TV is far less culpable for the coarsening of public dialogue, but like all media, it has some ingrained bad habits of its own. The broadcast equivalent of the highly ideological cable host is the super-inside political reporter — someone who betrays no opinions but reliably relates the Beltway consensus. It’s a useful perspective, but a limited, almost willfully stunted one.

Thus, it was a breath of fresh air to see Christiane Amanpour, the legendary foreign correspondent, move into the anchor chair of ABC’s “This Week,’’ single-handedly broadening the perspective of the Sunday-morning interview shows. Of course, she, too, was swatted down by some capital critics, led by Tom Shales of The Washington Post, for lacking the proper political chops. Spitzer, Parker, and Amanpour represent a legitimate attempt by TV news executives to sell substance and offer fresh perspectives. More than just ratings are riding on their success.

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