Shout-show TV

Print edition : May 15, 2015

Lias Kasidiaris, Member of Parliament of Greece's Golden Dawn party, hitting Liana Kanelli, a woman MP of the Communist Party, during a talk show on Antena TV. A file picture. Photo: AFP

On the need for journalists to maintain the quality of public discourse on politics in political talk shows on television.

ANCHORS vary, as do television channels, but the format is common to all. Every evening a subject for “debate” is announced. After the ritual news headlines follows the “debate”. Participants include spokesmen of political parties, their fellow-travellers in the media aspiring to win a Rajya Sabha nomination, and a sprinkling of others. The anchor wants them all to toe his line, even expecting the party spokesman to denounce the party line. The fellow-travellers vie for attention. Independents face an embarrassing situation.

To be sure this is not universally the case. There are some civilised and competent anchors. But they are few and far between. One anchor went to the Line of Control in Ladakh and said: “Behind me lies the McMahon Line.” Another went to Kashmir University and at the end of the debate polled the audience. When, predictably, most opted for secession from India, he remarked: “That is a subjective view.”

What, however, is most reprehensible is anchors encouraging shouting contests. A couple have specialised in initiating the “shout-show contest” themselves. It is insolent to invite a respected figure like Julio Ribeiro and ask him whether he has no faith in the country. Chauvinism and communalism stand out like sore thumbs. On a previous occasion, he toiled to establish what a good fellow Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was.

Growing incivility

This book is not an easy read. It is based on “laboratory experiments” with graphs and the rest. But it is a necessary read. The author, Diana C. Mutz, is a respected political communications expert concerned with the growing incivility on TV. She is Professor of Political Science and Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She argues that just as actual physical closeness intensifies people’s emotional reactions to others, the appearance of closeness on a video screen has similar effects. “We tend to keep our distance from those with whom we disagree. Modern media, however, puts those we dislike in our faces in a way that intensifies our negative reactions.” Prof. Mutz finds that incivility is particularly detrimental to facilitating respect for differing political viewpoints and to citizens’ levels of trust in politicians and the political process. On the positive side, it makes for keener interest in politics. On the whole, it debases political discourse.

In personal contacts, some norms of etiquette are observed in arguments. They are almost absent on TV as participants raise their index figures to have their ha’penny’s worth of say, the anchor prodding the speakers to toe his line.

TV arouses. Feelings are intensified; the lines are drawn; differences are exacerbated; TRPs shoot up and the cash register rings louder. “Regardless of the potential effects of televised violence on actual behaviour, there is a strong consensus that it causes heightened levels of arousal among viewers. Incivility in political discourse obviously pales in level of intensity to physical violence. But its implications should be the same, even if at a smaller magnitude. Much of the political discourse that transpires on television is highly uncivil in tone. As Wilson notes, ‘Once the media talked to us; now they shout at us’.

“The social norms for politeness in face-to-face settings are routinely violated on television. On political talk shows, in particular, people clearly do not obey the same set of social rules that ordinary citizens do in everyday life. Most people in real life are polite to others when disagreeing. The norms for politeness are very strong, thus one might expect that violating these norms—even on television—should not go unnoticed. Indeed, people may back off or avoid political discussion altogether if they fear that highly charged disagreements may erupt.

“On political talk shows, in contrast, violating conversational norms seems to be commonplace. Production values and intense market competition put a premium on conflict and drama. As a result, the political advocates who represent various viewpoints on TV may come across as nasty, boorish sorts who scream and yell at one another regularly.”

Necessary ingredient

Those involved in the production of political television argue that lively and passionate debate is a necessary ingredient for a successful political television programme. Anything less is too boring to attract television audiences—and revenue. Bill O’Reilly, host of The O’Reilly Factor, said: “If a producer can find someone who eggs on conservative listeners to spout off and prods liberals into shouting back, he’s got a hit show. The best host is the guy or gal who can get the most listeners extremely annoyed over and over and over again’.” Itself a reflection of the political divide, such chat shows produce “in-your-face politics”. There is little interest in “the other side’s” case.

“For a political process to create legitimacy, it must foster preferences for one candidate without demonising the opposition. When people retain a degree of respect for the opposing candidate, they support the notion of a legitimate opposition.”

The net result is a decline in people’s respect for politicians and politics. “To American citizens observing the political process, politics appears to be all about acrimonious debate. If political conflict is aired openly in an uncivil fashion, can citizens be expected to maintain respect for politics and politicians? Televised portrayals of political conflict have received a particularly severe beating, with some pointing to media reports highlighting conflict as a source of greater political cynicism. More general theories suggesting that television bears some responsibility for negative attitudes toward politics and politicians have received enthusiastic receptions over the years. In the 1970s, Robinson popularised the term ‘videomalaise’ to refer to negative public attitudes that resulted from watching television news.”

By emphasising the strategy and tactics behind campaigns, journalists contribute to an ongoing denigration of politicians’ motives. Politics is all about tactics. Cunning is prized over responsibility and good sense.

“Although the rise of talk shows as a form of political television has undoubtedly had an important impact, changes in the visual characteristics of television are not limited to political talk shows or to cable television. Political television is subject to far more competition for audiences today than it was in the past. People have more choices, so producers must compete more intensely for audience attention.

“Two kinds of increased competition are important. First, political news no longer has a monopoly in viewing at a particular time of day as it once did when the evening news broadcasts occurred simultaneously on all network channels. Political television must now compete with entertainment programming such as Hollywood movies, dramas, and sitcoms. In addition, there are now far more political programmes than even the most politically inclined individual could possibly watch. As a result, more choices among various political programmes must be made. Increased competition for audiences means that political programming should gravitate toward attention-grabbing strategies of various kinds.”

It is, surely, time Indian schools of journalism conducted extensive research on an abuse which bids fair to stay with us to the detriment of the quality of public discourse on politics.