TALKING HEADS Television's Political Talk Shows and Pundits

By Alan Hirsch St. Martin's. 249 pp. $17.95

THE SUBJECT of this provocative and useful book is the recent proliferation of television broadcasts featuring noisy exchanges between combative journalists: "The McLaughlin Group," "Crossfire," "Capital Gang," et al. ad nauseam. These exercises in exhibitionism receive all due contempt from Alan Hirsch, a lawyer who lives in Silver Spring, and everything he writes is suitably damning, but nothing is more so than the terminology he uses, apparently without considering its implications: He refers to these undertakings not as programs or broadcasts, but as shows. Therein, of course, lies the tale.

At various points, Hirsch quotes several of the journalists who have risen to eminence on the airwaves on the subject of the programs on which they appear. Jack Germond, of the Baltimore Evening Sun, says: "It's not important. It's just a television show." Morton Kondracke, of The New Republic, says: "It is a successful piece of show business and most of the people who watch it understand it as such." James J. Kilpatrick, the syndicated columnist, says: "Shana {Alexander} and I have great affection for each other. It didn't show. I guess that was show business."

Indeed it was, and is, and evermore shall be. Oddly enough, though, it is the one point that Hirsch dances lightly around in what is otherwise an acute analysis. He nails the talking-head shows for reducing political commentary to "aggressive, bite-size chunks"; he ridicules these pundits and swamis for their presumptuous opinionatedness on every subject under the sun; he takes note of the "locker-room machismo" that characterizes their "debates"; he notes, properly, that "the participants, rather than the issues they are discussing, become the central drama."

He does all of this, and does it very well, but for whatever reason he does not follow his analysis to its logical conclusion and damn the talking heads for what is, in fact, their most grievous offense: the transformation of journalism into mere show business. One can argue, to be sure, about whether some of these gentlemen -- Sam Donaldson and Patrick Buchanan leap to mind -- are capable of serious work under any conditions, but it is beyond dispute that collectively they have reduced the once-honorable institution of journalistic debate to a slapstick comedy replete with pratfalls and pie fights.

From time to time notice has been taken of the troubling phenomenon that has blurred beyond distinction the line between news and advertising; what we have in the talking heads is a parallel curiosity that has similarly closed the gap between journalism and entertainment. The men and occasional women who appear on the likes of "The McLaughlin Group" do so in the guise of journalists, indeed are accepted as such by those who watch them, but their sole purpose in thus appearing is to amuse. They are, as Hirsch tellingly describes them, "cartoon figures, persons without gravity," and in the end it says as much about us as about them that we take them, and their opinions, as seriously as they do themselves.

They seem to want to have it both ways: to be "serious" in print and frivolous on the air, and to be allowed the latter without any effect on their reputation as the former. In this they have the unwitting collaboration of Hirsch, who is at pains to give them more credit than they deserve. "These men are serious, thoughtful people," he says, and bends over backward to give them every benefit of the doubt in their role as writers. Thus Robert Novak, author of or collaborator on long-forgotten contemporary-affairs books, is called "a silver-haired, intelligent historian," George F. Will is a "philosopher" and Sam Donaldson is a "fearless gadfly."

This is how these gentlemen would like to be perceived, but the connection between perception and reality is not one that Hirsch explores with much thoroughness. He is at pains to note that the preoccupation with television celebrity and the lavish financial rewards it produces invariably has a deleterious effect on the writing these people do, and he is especially penetrating on its consequences for the work of Will and his whilom mentor, William F. Buckley Jr. But he accepts without real question the premise that these "highly talented writers and thinkers were, largely because of television, pulled away from their best work and taken less seriously than they deserve to be."

To the contrary, a case can be made that they've gotten exactly what they deserve -- like cream in the bottle, they've risen, or sunk, to their natural level. There is no hard and fast rule that journalists, or others who write about current affairs, have to pitch tantrums or act as trained seals on television in order to have successful, productive, influential careers. Somewhere along the line a choice has to be made, and if the choice is sound-bite punditry instead of sustained, unglamorous and relatively unremunerative writing, well, that tells us a great deal about those who make it.

Television is not an inherently silly medium, as the sober coverage of the crisis in the Persian Gulf has reminded us, but it does exercise a powerful influence on the silliness quotient in human beings, especially those with large egos and appetites. It delivers a kind of instant fame that some find immensely gratifying, and it pays lavish rewards not merely in its own fees but, even more, in the preposterous lecture charges that television celebrities command. If people want to chase after these rainbows, that's fine; more power to them. But there is no reason why we should accept their claims to seriousness, all the more so when writing is something they do on the side, cramming it in among lectures and high-profile dinner parties and globe-trotting and shows.

Alan Hirsch is certainly right that these people and their television programs have trivialized and debased public-affairs commentary; for the political process this is a considerable loss. But he is on shakier ground when he argues that noble careers have foundered on the shoals of television; they ran aground because that's where their pilots steered them, and there was nothing accidental about it.