Is America Ready for Kinder, Gentler Political TV?

- Mei 31, 2018

Asked once if his long-running public affairs show “Firing Line” and his National Review magazine were prosperous ventures, William F. Buckley Jr. replied, “You don’t expect the Catholic Church to turn a profit, do you?” Now, the Catholic Church is not hurting for operating funds, and it might seem silly to imply otherwise. Buckley’s point was that some endeavors are undertaken for the public good, because you simply think they are the right thing to do.

Buckley came from a moneyed family and profited from his books, speaking engagements and syndicated columns. But his TV show was a labor of love. In the service of standing up for conservative thought, Buckley began “Firing Line” in 1966 to stage thoughtful confrontations between left and right. He forged a respectable face for conservatism at a moment when the Republican Party still included a healthy liberal wing, and extremists like the John Birch Society dominated the right’s public perception. On “Firing Line,” Buckley staked a claim for witty, urbane, sophisticated conservatism. A proper right-winger, in his mind, opposed government regulation and heavy taxes on the wealthy. The notion that the fluoridation of water was a communist conspiracy was stuff and nonsense.

On June 2, PBS is scheduled to begin broadcasting its reboot of the show, with Margaret Hoover as host. Hoover, a minor figure in the George W. Bush administration and the great-granddaughter of the Republican president of the same name, has until now been a supporting player in the cable-news universe of conservative talking heads.

So why now? Televised political discussion was contentious before the election of Donald J. Trump, and it has only gotten worse since. A new “Firing Line” could be an opportunity for both left and right to lower the volume and talk things through. But will viewers accustomed to the cable news echo chamber be willing to gravitate to PBS for a more nuanced debate? Can a politically evenhanded program thrive in our deregulated and fractious news ecosystem, not to mention our toxic political environment? The odds for such a show may not seem good, but the producers—and an underserved, if small, audience hungry for “Firing Line”’s brand of genteel parley—are wagering that the answer is yes.

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In its earliest years “Firing Line,” which introduced a small but loyal group of Americans to perspectives often truncated or censored in other media outlets, was distributed in the syndicated commercial market. From the very beginning, Buckley acknowledged, his ratings had been “exiguous,” to use one of his distinctive vocabulary words—that is to say, meager. Buckley was pleased with his low ratings, because he knew that his erudite conversations would inherently appeal only to a narrow audience of political junkies.

The idea of a mass audience never really crossed his mind. When “Firing Line” premiered, “Bonanza,” “Green Acres,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” were among America’s most profitable programs. If that was America’s TV pantheon, a show hosted by a Yale debate team alumnus who regularly dropped words like “asymptotic” was never going to successfully compete. From Buckley’s perspective, this was something to be proud of.

Paradoxically, one of the country’s most ardent voices for free-market capitalism ended up airing his program on public television, and ultimately survived for some 30 years not by selling ad time but by finding individuals, corporations and foundations to underwrite the show. “Firing Line” continued not because it was a hit, but because Buckley believed in it, fought for it, and, most important, enjoyed it. It was fun.

Buckley’s faith in conservatism was rewarded with Ronald Reagan’s election, but by the time Bill Clinton was in office “Firing Line” had lost some of its pizzazz. It chugged along on public television until Buckley himself finally pulled the plug in 1999. By the time he did, the American TV landscape was radically different from where it had been in 1966. Cable had been on rise since the 1980s, and the viewing public was increasingly fragmented. The networks still had the highest rated regularly scheduled shows, but the mass audience was not what it used to be. “Bonanza” pulled in 29 million households in 1966­–1967. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” ABC’s juggernaut quiz show, drew just under 19 million in 1998–1999.

The decline of the mass audience has been less than salubrious for news and public affairs. Fox News and MSNBC premiered in 1996, inaugurating a turn to politically slanted TV news and fostering the rise of opinion commentary dominated by big personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. When “The McLaughlin Group” premiered in 1982, it had seemed like a cartoonish version of “Firing Line,” not the kind of thing to gain traction as a real public affairs show. But in the long run, it was McLaughlin’s style of political cockfighting that won out. There seems to be little oxygen left for reasoned political debate.

Enter “Firing Line with Margaret Hoover.” Questioned why underwriters would support this new venture, Hoover explains, “There is something in the zeitgeist … a thirst for prolonged, substantive, reasonable, sustained conversation that unfolds and that’s informed, is engaging, educational, entertaining, all in one. So let’s try it, and see if it’s true. That’s the proposition.” The reply is both earnest and modest: It seems like a great idea, so let’s test drive it and see what happens.

The new “Firing Line” has been contracted for 29 episodes, which is impressive when you consider that it’s based on little more than a hunch, and enthusiasm and nostalgia for a show that has been off the air for almost 20 years. With an underwritten show on PBS, however, a slavish devotion to weekly numbers is not required. You can make a grand experiment. No series is entirely ratings-immune, but the new “Firing Line”’s combination of private sponsorship and civic merit could insulate it in much the same manner as the original.

Asked why PBS is a good home for the new “Firing Line,” Neal Shapiro, president of New York City’s member station WNET, observes that “much of our success is to go where there’s market failure. We get a huge audience for arts and culture because there’s no one else in that game. And we get a huge audience for serious nature programs and science documentaries because there’s nobody else in that game. And certainly I think we’re a place for reasonable, thought-out political discussion. There’s nobody else in that game either.”

“Firing Line” is, then, PBS’ counterprogramming to cable news’ shouting heads, aired on a network that theoretically serves as the last refuge for those with long attention spans.

When the new “Firing Line” was in development, nearly everyone involved believed Hillary Clinton would be elected president. It premieres in a very different era. Ultimately, seven sponsors came on board, and they include liberals and conservatives alike. David Tepper is a billionaire hedge fund manager who endorsed Clinton in 2016, though he otherwise voted a Republican ticket that year. Cliff Asness, another billionaire, is a libertarian and was an outspoken opponent of Barack Obama. Philanthropist Spencer B. Haber is on the Humane Society’s board of directors and has made small donations to Republican PACs. Marlene Ricketts contributed $3 million to an anti-Trump super PAC, but also contributed $10,000 to super PACs supporting Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. The Robertson Foundation funds educational, medical and environmental initiatives and is listed by opensecrets.org as a Clinton Foundation donor in the $1 million to $5 million range.

Host Margaret Hoover has been a CNN contributor since 2012, and before that spent four years at Fox News, including two years with a recurring segment on Bill O’Reilly’s show. She is the great-granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover, whose 1922 book—characterized as a tribute to “nineteenth-century laissez-faire ideology” by the historian (and POLITICO Magazine contributing editor) David Greenberg—was titled American Individualism. Hoover appropriated the title for her own 2011 book, adding the hopeful subtitle, “How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party.” In the book, she lamented the GOP’s brand crisis and sought to speak out to socially liberal millennials who are open to a conservative understanding of American exceptionalism.

Hoover somewhat coyly told me, “At times in my life, I’ve identified as a conservative, although there are conservatives who’ve said that I’m not conservative enough.” Specifically, she has been a strong advocate for marriage equality. Her softer stance on social issues distances her from the devoutly Catholic Buckley. She is, for example, “personally pro-life but politically pro-choice,” as she wrote in her book.

Buckley himself will appear on the relaunch, in clips curated from the original show. It’s a smart move to pull in viewers nostalgic for the old “Firing Line.” It also helps preempt concerns that “Firing Line” can’t really be “Firing Line” without Buckley’s presence. Shapiro notes that Margaret is a very fine interviewer, adding, “I think I can safely watch Margaret’s show without needing to have a dictionary next to me.” The point is not that Hoover is verbally deficient, but that she is no sesquipedalian. Fair enough. “I am not Buckley, and I am not going to try to be Buckley,” she says.

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But if Hoover is no Buckley, is she a sufficiently strong voice for conservatism? She freely admits that her business is TV, not movement building. In fact, for someone reviving a TV show hosted by the father of the American conservative movement, Hoover is curiously disinclined to take a stand on how the current political moment will affect the show. Instead she observes with equipoise, “There are fault lines on the right and there are fault lines on the left right now that are worth exploring.”

Both Hoover and Shapiro emphasize that the new “Firing Line” will be a place for “a contest of ideas,” but the notion that the show’s host will advocate for any particular ideas feels out of reach. That’s a stark contrast to the original. Notwithstanding guests such as Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman, the original purpose of Buckley’s show was to put the left “on the firing line.”

Shapiro contends, “PBS is about the battle of ideas. PBS doesn’t come at anything with a particular point of view. We are about lifelong learning … about valuing intelligence in depth, and I think that’s what this show is.”

A fair “contest of ideas” is one way of understanding the values that underpinned the Fairness Doctrine, the bygone federal policy mandating broadcasters to cover political topics in an equitable manner. The old “Firing Line” ably demonstrated this sort of balanced fairness, even as Buckley himself expressed a viewpoint as the show’s host (and opposed the doctrine as unnecessary governmental interference). By taking the old network-era approach to balance, the new “Firing Line” will strike a pose that once again marks it as different from cable news. In other words, the old approach that Buckley’s “Firing Line” tacked against will today stand out as a specialized, niche approach to political conversation.

But what drove the old show was not only intelligence, but also a sense of urgency. Buckley was trying to save America from communism, from radical social movements, and from what he generally saw as a creeping liberal menace. On the other side, the left was trying to save America from the Vietnam War, from Nixon and from McCarthyism. Whichever side you came down on, it was clear that Buckley was trying to make America better, and he happened to make TV better along the way.

A sense of dire crisis animates the contemporary American political landscape, and, while no one expects television alone to improve things, there’s reason to push back against the pessimists who say it can make things only worse. We’ve seen the left and right using the airwaves to fight Trump, with Tom Steyer, for example, running pro-impeachment ads and Bill Kristol’s Republicans for the Rule of Law running pro-Mueller ads. A show in the spirit of Buckley’s could undoubtedly allow space for long-form discussion of the concerns that drive both left and right in these dark days of neo-Nazism, populism and xenophobia.

Hoover’s “Firing Line” seeks to “return a tradition to TV.” Such a return would be welcome, but the producers and host should remember that the art of agreeable disagreement that Buckley showcased was in the name of political—not rhetorical—reform.


 

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