Tom Shales on PBS's 'Need to Know'

SNOOZEWORTHY: Alison Stewart fawned over Bill Clinton while Jon Meacham's effort to save face was barely competent.
SNOOZEWORTHY: Alison Stewart fawned over Bill Clinton while Jon Meacham's effort to save face was barely competent. (Joe Sinnott/
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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Suppose Charles Dickens were alive today and just sitting down at a keyboard to input the content of a new cybernovel. Here is how he might begin: "It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times."

Not even Dickens at his most Christmassy would be so naive as to imagine that ours could be mistaken for "the best of times." The notion is absurd, and the tyranny of the computer is one reason. It will take -- what? -- a generation or more to tame this intrusion upon our lives and consciousness and get it under some kind of useful control.

That doesn't even include the art and science of eliminating such loathsome viruses as one that attacked my PC only this week, sending out reams of private data and e-mail addresses to dozens of people who'd innocently sent e-mails to me.

I think that, in time, the term "Luddite" will be revived -- but not as a pejorative.

Gullible culprits wait in line to worship this new Golden Calf in a redesigned Tower of Babel and use it as a handy excuse to avoid thinking on one's own. Among the latest victims of the "digital revolution" is independent maverick Bill Moyers, who has been displaced from a lonely, longtime berth on public television -- so that PBS can unload in his place a new weekly magazine promising "news for a new generation."

The monstrosity in question, and very much in doubt, is "Need to Know," a specious wheeze purporting, according to flatulent publicity prose, to take "an innovative approach to newsgathering and reporting" and thereby provide -- on "multiple platforms," of course -- "a dynamic source of current-affairs coverage for today's media consumers."

Now why didn't Moyers even think about addressing us as "media consumers"? And was he perhaps guilty of committing the 21st-century sin of performing on only one "platform" at a time, when he could have been multitasking on multimedia?

PBS promises that this dreadful "Need to Know" show, which supplements vacuous televised drivel with fancily designed Web-page graphics, "empowers audiences to 'tune in' any time and any where."

Meaning that you are free to supplement inadequate broadcast material with unsatisfying Internet material whenever you inexplicably get the urge. Oh boy, what a boon!

Funny thing -- after watching about two-thirds of "Need to Know's" first edition, which is actually more than I could stand, I didn't feel "empowered" at all. I felt embittered -- angry that Moyers, with his contentious controversies and honest attempts at insight, was gone and this specious, streamlined tripe dispenser was sitting there in his place.

True, it is probably unfair to judge any TV show by the promotion somebody dreamed up for it -- but it's disappointing to see public TV reaching for the same kind of silly hyperbole and shameless ballyhoo that commercial broadcasting has used for decades. It might be hard to remember this far back, but once upon a time, some of us hoped that public TV would develop into a smart, sophisticated, civilized alternative to commercial TV -- not a cheap imitation of it.

"Need to Know" -- which debuted last week -- arguably has to be seen to be believed, but you're probably better off basking in benign and, in this case, nutritious ignorance. The first show included a fawning, fatuous interview with Bill Clinton, who was treated as though he were Walter Lippman and Nostradamus rolled into one ("I have a tremendously dorky question," one of the interviewers gushed apologetically) and who was asked absolutely nothing he didn't revel in being asked.

Then came a half-decent produced piece on the 50th anniversary of the only pill that comes to mind when people refer to "The Pill," though the level of analysis was not exactly profound. When birth-control pills first appeared in 1960, it was announced, "it seemed like everyone had an opinion." No, really?! An opinion!? Oh my heavenly stars, can you imagine?!?

The show's at best semi-competent anchors were Jon Meacham and NPR veteran Alison Stewart. He looked forlorn, as if having been left out in the rain, and she looked as though she would have been much more comfortable in Clinton's lap. Meacham did a slightly better job of hanging onto a teeny-tiny shred of dignity. (Meacham, by the way, is editor of Newsweek, which was recently put up for sale by The Washington Post Co.)

Of the assembled cast members, only one might have reasonably been labeled a talent -- and that was Andy Borowitz, who has fashioned a fairly comfortable career for himself as one of the wittiest Web wags. Borowitz's piece for PBS was poorly edited and given too little screen time, but at least the humorist has come up with one of the best excuses yet for the Internet's existence:

As a conspicuously appropriate and convenient launching pad for slings and arrows directed at it.

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