My heart goes out to the guests on news analysis shows. After spending years acquiring expertise in their fields, they get invited to share their knowledge. But then, when asked a question, before they get ten words into their answers they are interrupted and even told that they are wrong.
Here’s a fairly typical example. A host asked a guest why young people are shying away from Obamacare. The main reason, she responded, is “that they thought that redistribution of wealth was a great idea, but . . . .” The host then interrupted, “Nah, I disagree with you . . .”
Frustrated, the guest said, “Let me finish my point please.” The host gave her a three-nah retort. “Nah, nah, nah, you know we have a limit on the segment.” (In replaying the tape, I timed her response to the question at twelve seconds and wondered what limit the host was talking about. Eight seconds? Three?)
Determined to finish, the guest added quickly that Obamacare is now hitting young people personally and that makes it a big deal to them.
The host ended the exchange with “I hate to be rude, but… the time limit. The reason young people are turning away from the president is that they can’t find decent jobs. That’s it.”
That’s it? A strong argument could be made that the guest’s answer was more insightful than the host’s. But even if that were not the case, he should have let her complete her sentence.
Here’s another example. A host had made a reference to Christians “thumping the Bible” and been criticized for it. On a subsequent show, he asked a frequent and valued guest what she thought of the matter. She attempted to explain why people objected to the term, but the host interrupted. She then asked if she could complete her thought, and he responded “No.”
She valiantly pursued her thought anyway, but was treated to further interruptions. Toward the end, the host summed up his rejection of her criticism with intensity: “Don’t you understand . . . It wasn’t an insult to Christians . . . There are Bible thumpers . . . [Saying that] was accurate and honest.”
The host would have better served the guest and his audience if he had bothered to look up the term in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines “Bible thumper” as “an overzealous advocate of Christian fundamentalism.” It is obviously pejorative and thus offensive. No amount of interruption and shouting can alter that fact.
To relieve the frustration I feel for talk show guests, I imagined this exchange with an offending talk show host:
VRR: Why do you interrupt your guests?
Host: I can’t let them ramble on or they’ll take up the whole show.
VRR: But you don’t just cut off ramblers. You also cut off responsive people before they finish a sentence.
Host: I never cut them off until I know where their answer is going. At that point I know what they are going to say so I can save time.
VRR: Surely you’re not clairvoyant. A person may begin, “It would be irresponsible to grant amnesty to 20 million illegal immigrants . . .” At that point you have no way of knowing whether his next words will expand on that idea or expose its weakness. He might continue, “but we should find some way to legitimize their status.” If you cut him off before the “but,” you’ll deprive your audience of hearing the person’s idea.
Host: I get a sense of where the guest is going with her point, but I can’t wait indefinitely because the segments are carefully framed and hard breaks must be met.
VRR: If it were just a matter of time, you’d interrupt guests pretty equally. But you tend to interrupt those you disagree with more than others. And you usually manage to find time to elaborate on your point after the interruption. So much for time limits.
Host: I try to be sensitive to when guests are avoiding the question.
VRR: Interrupting in that case is understandable. Interrupting simply because they don’t say what you want them to say you is not.
Host: I’m an analyst so I am free to state my disagreement whenever I wish.
VRR: You are both an analyst and a host, and the latter role carries obligations. If your guests have sufficient expertise to be invited on your show, they should be extended the courtesy of completing their responses.
Host: You don’t seem to understand that on-air time is precious. I have an obligation to my audience to use it wisely.
VRR: Your main obligation to your audience is to make your show meaningful. That can only happen if ideas are freely and fully expressed. If time is too limited, the solution is to have fewer segments and/or fewer guests, not to invite many on and treat them rudely.
Occasionally, I look back at videos of TV discussions in decades past, and I’m struck with how much more relaxed and informative they were. I recently watched an exchange between William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer. It had lots of give and take. Both questions and answers were often long and nuanced. There was also lots of disagreement, but it was always civil and flavored with humor. Most important, the two listened to each other.
I’m not advocating a return to that type of talk show. That would be too difficult for many reasons. But I think we’d all be better served if today’s hosts treated their guests with more patience and respect.
Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved