Former TV talk-show host Montel Williams was on CNN the other day discussing the Senate torture report and . . .
Wait. What? Montel Williams, ubiquitous pitchman for payday loans, compression sleeves and blenders, was on a national news program discussing the CIA’s controversial “enhanced interrogation” program?
Actually, yes. CNN sought out Williams for comment after the report’s release, thereby according him equal time with senators, foreign-policy experts and human rights activists. By way of credentials, CNN host Brooke Baldwin noted that Williams, a former naval officer, “minored in international security studies” in college.
Why Williams, of all people? CNN never explained the choice, but, well, why not? Cable news has copious hours of airtime to fill, and it sometimes fills them with expert analysts who not only aren’t experts but also really aren’t even analysts. They just play them on cable TV news shows.
Fox News, for example, called on Gene Simmons the other day to dissect President Obama’s announcement that he was relaxing decades-old restrictions on trade with Cuba. You may remember Simmons as the long-tongued, face-painted co-lead singer of the 1970s glam-rock band Kiss. Among other things, Simmons knows a few things about the music business, having spent a good deal of his adult life in it. As the author of a coffee-table book about the history of prostitution, he’s also something of an expert on hookers.
Sure, why not? Go ahead, Gene.
“I think we’re going to win, even though it’s a weak political stance,” Simmons said on Fox, thus simultaneously criticizing Obama and vouching for Obama’s policy. “Crack the door open. Bring America in there. Bring Twitter, Facebook. We’ll win. The [Cuban] people will rise up from within.”
Simmons made the case, albeit vaguely, for his intellectual bona fides when he was interviewed by Fox host Greta Van Susteren in 2011. “All of us are trapped by the modern-day notion that if you’re a bootmaker that’s all you do,” he said. “In the old days, if you were a barber, in the Renaissance period in Europe, you were also the dentist, and if you were a doctor, you cured most of the ails. . . . I have many passions, and I enjoy many things.”
As a Renaissance opinionator, Simmons may be to Fox what Montel Williams is to CNN. The latter has commented on CNN about the riots in Ferguson, Mo., medical marijuana and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Simmons has boldly opined on Tim Tebow, Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential candidacy, and Ebola. Neither seems to have any special knowledge, experience or expertise on these topics, but they do seem to have, in Simmons’s word, “passion” about them.
In that sense, Simmons could be the Wayne Rogers of Fox, if Fox didn’t already have Wayne Rogers. Although his prominence may have peaked during the Carter administration, the former “M*A*S*H” star has become many things since: investment adviser, Hollywood agent, real estate developer.
But Rogers can’t be limited to Hollywood or business topics, his putative specialty on “Cashin’ In.” He’s an all-purpose analyst now, retailing his thoughts on such topics as prisoner swaps and NSA spying. His most electric performance may have been in August, when, in a debate with fellow Fox panelist Michelle Fields, he had enough of listening to someone else’s opinion.
Cable news may be the only mainstream news source that does this sort of thing. Other news outlets don’t usually turn over their airwaves and pixels to nonexperts when an expert is called for. The New York Times isn’t likely to quote Miley Cyrus in an article about world oil markets. “Face the Nation” doesn’t book Iggy Azalea to analyze the partisan divide on Capitol Hill.
But Fox, in particular, seems to have no qualms about eliciting, say, the political musings of ’70s rock musician (what is it about ’70s rock musicians?) Ted Nugent, or the national-security prescriptions of “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson. It also has turned Stacey Dash, co-star of the 1995 movie “Clueless,” into an all-around pundit.
Or actor Kevin Sorbo. In a recent discussion about defense spending — because apparently the former “Hercules” star knows about defense spending — Sorbo lamented, “Our defense budget [has] been so cut down over the decades, it’s really unfortunate.”
When told by a fellow panelist that defense spending has risen dramatically, Sorbo seemed surprised. “That’s not true? That’s what I’ve heard. I’m reading the wrong” material.
And this is all without mentioning Donald Trump, who has moved on from his investigation into Obama’s place of birth to downloading his thoughts about whatever Donald Trump is thinking about today. In one remarkable interview this month, Trump commented on the following topics: the Sony hack, China’s economic power, interest rates, the unemployment rate, Russia, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush.
A Fox News spokeswoman, Dana Klinghoffer, offered several off-the-record comments but declined to discuss the network’s booking policies for attribution. CNN was equally tight-lipped; spokeswoman Bridget Leininger responded to a request for comment this way: “No, thanks.”
A couple of leading questions about this: Do “nonexperts” add much to a viewer’s understanding of the news? Does their presence devalue discussions of the news or do they offer illumination beyond the usual talking heads drawn from the Acela Corridor? Are all perspectives on TV equal, as long as they’re provocative and move the Nielsen meter?
“Turning to celebrities or quasi-celebrities as news commentators sets my eyes to rolling,” W. Joseph Campbell says. “I’m sure it does for a lot of people, who see through the veneer. The practice usually doesn’t elevate or enrich the discussion. It strikes me as a sort of latter-day stunt journalism that seldom produces revealing insight.”
We don’t mean to sound elitist here, but Campbell is no Stacey Dash. He’s an expert on subjects like this. A professor of communication studies at American University in Washington, he is written six books about the news media.
By Campbell’s way of thinking, selectivity is key.
“Anyone can have an opinion,” he said, but “a diversity of well-informed views is what journalists ideally ought to seek.”
On the other hand, no harm, no foul, either: An offbeat guest pundit can bring a hint of “novelty” to the same-old, same-old lineups of interview subjects, he said. Campbell is partial to comedian Dennis Miller, whose droll take on the news often enlivens “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox.
Of course, cable news programs are about heat as much as light, so strong or offbeat opinions have an obvious appeal to the people who book cable shows. This explains the career of such permanent cable creatures as Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingraham. They are sought-after guests not because they speak with nuance or from deep erudition but because they can be counted on to hurl thunderbolts.
Otherwise, you take what you get. Which can be . . . awkward.
Last week, CNN booked actor Jay Thomas — Jay Thomas? — to discuss the Sony hacking story and the studio’s decision at the time to scrap distribution of its movie “The Interview” amid unspecified threats of retaliation from North Korea over the movie’s depiction of dictator Kim Jong Un being assassinated.
Thomas offered one upside to a North Korean missile strike against the film’s stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco: “If they do strike Seth Rogen and James Franco, what a great end to their careers. They made a movie, they kept their integrity, and they caused a guy to launch a missile.”
To which Brooke Baldwin, the host, replied in the only way possible: “Ooof!”
No worries, Thomas suggested. “I think [the missile strike] will be against Japan,” he said.