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Why Talk Shows Are a Threat to US Democracy

Nobody expects political TV show hosts like Mr. Hannity to come up with elaborate peace plans on their programs. But their viewers ought to get their share of informative political debate.

The US media coverage of the ongoing conflict in Gaza, with its contentious debates and ideologically-fueled opposing narratives, provides a host of artful illustrations of all that’s wrong with political talk-shows airing on major TV networks in the US. One such example is a short YouTube video I have recently come across.

This excerpt from The Sean Hannity Show features a heated argument between the show’s host, the pro-Israeli Mr. Hannity and his guest, the pro-Palestinian Mr. Yousef Munayyer. Hannity’s question to Munayyer, which dominated the exchange, was “Is Hamas a terrorist organization?” Hannity’s insistence on receiving a straight yes-no answer and Munayyer’s refusal to reply in these terms led to insults (“Which part of it you can’t get through your thick head?”) and to an atmosphere of adversity, disrespect and contempt.

I have tried to follow this exchange with as much bona fide as I could possibly muster. The premises of Hannity’s question seem clear: Governments of sovereign states may not negotiate with terrorist organizations, and Hamas either is or is not a terrorist organization. Therefore, it seems plausible that, had Munayyer answered affirmatively, Hannity’s follow-up would be a rhetorical question such as “So you’re proposing that a legitimate Government negotiates with terrorists?!” If, on the other hand, Munayyer had said “no”, Hannity would likely list examples that show Hamas’ terrorist behavior. Despite Hannity’s notable affinity for prosecutorial exchanges, it seemed as though he got angry because Munayyer refused to accept Hannity’s premises. And, in fact, these premises are regularly questioned both within academia and in today’s realpolitik. Surely, the nature of Hamas’ activities, ideology and influence cannot be reduced to a binary classification between “terrorist” and “non-terrorist”. And, in serious discussions, the “terrorist” criterion is rarely used to a priori dismiss a side in a conflict as difficult and pressing as the Israeli-Palestinian one. The system of international relations is far more complex than that.

Admittedly, nobody expects political TV show hosts like Mr. Hannity to come up with elaborate peace plans on their programs. But their viewers ought to get their share of informative political debate. This brings me to ask a broader question: does the American public get any benefit from watching political discussions like the abovementioned one?

I was diligent enough to watch a dozen more YouTube clips from The Sean Hannity Show and it appeared that all of his debates follow a similar pattern. Hannity tends to frame the lines of discussion in a way that gives him the most space for one-liners and zingers. When his often questionable premises are second-guessed, he responds with moral indignation. And he uses factual claims, such as the one about “6 trillion dollar debt during Obama’s time in office”, solely for their potential to strike a dramatic chord, without explaining their actual political implications. While The Sean Hannity Show may offer a few examples that show these sorts of manipulation in a particularly obvious form, numerous other political talk-shows use tricks from the same playbook. Similar excerpts from the O’Riley Factor, the Glenn Beck Program, Hardball, Crossfire and Piers Morgan Live make it hard to see how any mildly informed viewer could be better off after watching their take on the issues of the day. In fact, TV shows might actually hurt the interests of their viewership by undermining public trust in politics and democratic institutions.

This has been one of the conclusions reached in Mutz and Reeves’ article “The New Videomalaise: Effects of Televised Incivility on Political Trust” (published in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Feb., 2005) pp. 1-15). Mutz and Reeves performed an experiment which showed that incivility in televised political discussions has adverse effects on the viewers’ trust in political institutions. According to them, regular viewers expect discussants in political talk shows to adhere to the social norms of politeness that prevail in real life. When these expectations are not met, viewers react negatively and lose trust in the political profession that these discussants embody. This loss of trust extends to political institutions such as the US Congress, which today stands at it historical lows in the eyes of the American electorate. Incivility in talk show debates undoubtedly bears some entertainment value, drawing viewers with the appeal of a live pro-wrestling match. But, in the long run, the distrust they produce threatens the stability of democratic institutions.

Mutz and Reeves defined “political incivility” in an overly narrow way; that is, purely as a function of style. Their experiment ignored the implications that the manner of conversing has for the content of the conversation. Political TV show hosts such as Sean Hannity, Bill O’Riley, Chris Matthews and Piers Morgan (here’s a great display of Mr. Morgan’s table manners) do not simply raise their voices, shout insults or throw stuff at their guests. The harm they do to the public trust in democratic institutions is primarily in the oversimplification and trivialization of complex political issues. Their sensationalism prompts them to present their audiences with easily manipulated political narratives. This sort of videomalaise plays on the ideal of an “informed electorate, cautious of politicians’ motives and capable of independent political assessment” and produces its dangerous counterpart – an electorate fed with memorable one-liners, innately distrustful of the political system and susceptible to charlatans.

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