Tom Shales on TV: Liz Cheney Turns a Talk Show Into a One-Sided Conversation

(Ed Andrieski - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tom Shales On TV is a new weekly column by the Pulitzer-winning critic. He'll write not only on all things television but also about our culture and the forces that shape it. Look for him on Tuesdays.

As philosopher and pianist Chico Marx might have said, "There ain't no Sanity Clause" in the TV talk-show code of ethics -- but then neither is there a code of ethics. Shouting matches may be irrelevant and deplorable but -- oh, all-rationalizing phrase -- they can also make for "good TV." Many are the crimes against civility, logic and simple decency committed in its name.

Perhaps it was good TV when, on Sunday's edition of the estimable and ever-excellent ABC News program "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," veteran network nabob Sam Donaldson tangled with rising purple pundit of the right Liz Cheney over matters related to terrorists, torture and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

There was acrimony, there were scowls and, as is a habit of Cheney's -- honed during what was for her a sort of Chatterbox Summer -- there was simultaneous talking that rendered both participants unintelligible. Cheney has a way of continuing to talk, charging forward in single-minded determination, when someone else has the floor, even if that "someone" might be moderator Stephanopoulos, who is supposed to set the agenda.

She doesn't just finish a thought, she doesn't just finish a sentence, she'll go right into a new paragraph and ignore all attempts to head her off.

No, this isn't Congress or the Oxford Debating Society. Decorum need not be an obsession. Among TV's talky-trots, however, "This Week" does occupy a higher plane -- in terms of tone and comportment -- than, say, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" which, in turn, can easily look down its nose at "The Jerry Springer Show," which, as we continue the trip downward, clearly exists on a higher plane than -- well, there may be nothing lower than Jerry Springer. Then again, that bad boy and his screwball guests can be awfully, lamentably, hilariously entertaining.

Springer deals in non-content talk, which television is full of, and action-talk, in which words are less relevant than the manner in which they are shrieked, jabbed or hurled.

Jerry Springer and George Stephanopoulos in the same paragraph?! Sacre bleu! There may be more than six degrees of separation between them, but they both serve up audibles -- audio content in a supposedly visual medium. The lower the aim of the talk show, the more visual its content is likely to be.

In a way, television schedules are zoned like commercial or residential neighborhoods; you don't expect a porno store on Foxhall Road (in fact, you feel safe from any such aberration) or a sleazy massage parlor sandwiched between Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Even a supposedly classless and increasingly boorish culture has some social borders left -- if arguably fewer all the time.

Cheney's behavior on the talk shows is guerrilla rhetoric to some degree, and intentionally rude; its flouting of civility helps brand her a hero to her constituency, as someone who'll stand up to opposing forces and keep up a steady stream of words even if she renders herself incomprehensible, too.

It may not matter to Cheney that her own argument can't be understood as she continues on her course of rudeness as rhetoric. Content is moot; this is "discussion" as obfuscation, the use of language not to communicate but to obliterate. And it works. It's also considered "good TV" in some quarters. The Lincoln-Douglas debates would have been considered bad TV because they were all about content. Or Douglas would have won hands down because Lincoln was funny lookin'.

Is there a connection between Cheney's technique and the shout-down approach of those who attend town meetings on health-care reform only so they can disrupt them? Cheney's manner is not openly hostile, or loud, or preliterate. She does not usually scream or kick, pout or shout. This isn't "The View."

For Stephanopoulos and his producers, the choice is obvious. Cheney unquestionably "livens up" their show, which is in a do-or-die ratings race with "Meet the Press," traditionally the Sunday-morning champ (a "This Week" spokeswoman says the ABC program did come in first over "Meet the Press" once during the summer). If there is one common goal to everything produced for TV -- scripted, reality-related, sophisticated or animated -- it's liveliness. When Steve Allen did his high-minded "Meeting of Minds" scripted talk-show for public TV, he made sure that the actors cast as Napoleon or Socrates or Sigmund Freud or Albert Einstein spoke in a "lively" way.

("Okay, Al, your explanation of the theory of relativity was interesting, but you're putting people to sleep already! Can't you liven it up a little? Come on; let's try it again. Somebody get this guy a decent necktie! And the rest of you, don't be shy about arguing with him or calling him a phony!")

Yes, it's a symptom, not a crisis, and maybe all is fair in love and political discourse. But is it discourse when the point is to keep the other person from being heard, even if you keep yourself from being heard, too? Stephanopoulos has to decide whether he'll ditch dignity in order to ensure popularity, whether his will be a talk show people admire for its wit and wisdom or relish for its splats, kicks and smacks in the kisser.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company