By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
The mutual admiration society: Politeness first and truth be damned.
YEARS AGO, when the nightly program was mandatory viewing in every liberal home
from Montauk to Santa Monica, I wrote a parody of the McNeil-Lehrer
Show, as it was then called before McNeil hailed down his colors and
moved on. The piece ran in Harper's, and though it prompted a good
deal of laughter, there were a surprising number of letters from
outraged PBS viewers, wailing about my lack of respect. It was as
though I had publicly kicked a respected greybeard.
other night, glancing Lehrer's News Hour I shook my head yet again at
the precision of my gibes. This particular show was about the efforts
of Ken Tomlinson, formerly of Readers' Digest and Voice of America, to
purge PBS of all liberal taint. From the right there was a nutcase from
The American Spectator called George Neumayr and from the left but of
course there was no one from the left. There never is. There was a
"moderate" from the center right called Bill Reed.
JEFFREY BROWN (moderator): Welcome to both of you. Mr. Neumayr Do you see a liberal bias in public broadcasting?
GEORGE NEUMAYR: I do. I see a pervasive bias. I applaud Ken Tomlinson for making an attempt to correct it
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Reed, do you see a liberal bias?
REED: I think this is really nonsense. You know, for over 30 years,
William F. Buckley was on public television, and I carried him proudly
in the stations that I`ve managed in my career. He`s a fine journalist,
and so is Bill Moyers.
JEFFREY BROWN: So Mr. Reed, what do you believe is causing Mr. Tomlinson to raise these questions?
BILL REED: You know, I don`t know. I don`t know.
Feel yourself dozing off?
there were important historical reasons for the rise of this narcotic
show. So, without further ado, I give my parody, as it appeared nearly
25 years ago, in august 1982, under the title The Tedium Twins
MACNEIL (voice over): A Galilean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and
says the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified?
Good evening. The Roman procurator in Jerusalem is trying to decide
whether a man regarded by many as a saint should be put to death.
Pontius Pilate is being urged by civil libertarians to intervene in
what is seen here in Rome as being basically a local dispute. Tonight,
the crucifixion debate. Jim?
LEHRER: Robin, the provinces of Judaea and Galilee have always been
trouble spots, and this year is no exception. The problem is part
religious, part political, and in many ways a mixture of both. The Jews
believe in one god. Discontent in the province has been growing, with
many local businessmen complaining about the tax burden. Terrorism,
particularly in Galilee, has been on the increase. In recent months, a
carpenter's son from the town of Nazareth has been attracting a large
following with novel doctrines and faith healing. He recently entered
Jerusalem amid popular acclaim, but influential Jewish leaders fear his
power. Here in Alexandria the situation is seen as dangerous. Robin?
Recently in Jerusalem on a fact-finding mission for the Emperor's
Emergency Task Force on Provincial Disorders was Quintilius Maximus.
Mr. Maximus, how do you see the situation?
Robin, I had occasion to hear one of this preacher's sermons a few
months ago and talk with his aides. There is no doubt in my mind that
he is a threat to peace and should be crucified.
MACNEIL: Pontius Pilate should wash his hands of the problem?
MACNEIL: I see. Thank you. Jim?
Now for a view from Mr. Simon, otherwise known as Peter. He is a
supporter of Christ and has been standing by in a Jerusalem studio.
MACNEIL: Mr. Simon Peter, why do you support Christ?
PETER: He is the Son of God and presages the Second Coming. If I may, I
would like to read some relevant passages from the prophet Isaiah.
MACNEIL: Thank you, but I'm afraid we'll have to break in there. We've run out of time. Goodnight, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MACNEIL: Sleep well, Jim.
LEHRER: I hope you sleep well, too, Robin.
MACNEIL: I think I will. Well, good night again, Jim.
LEHRER: Goodnight, Robin.
MACNEIL: We'll be back again tomorrow night. I'm Robert MacNeil Good night.
of the 'MacNeil/Lehrer Report' - and there are many of them - often
talk about it in terms normally reserved for unpalatable but nutritious
breakfast foods: unalluring, perhaps, to the frivolous news consumer,
but packed full of fiber. It is commended as the sort of news analysis
a serious citizen, duly weighing the pros and cons of world history,
would wish to masticate before a thoughtful browse through the
Federalist Papers, a chat with spouse about civic duties incumbent on
them on the morrow, and final blameless repose.
promotional material for the 'Report' has a tone of reverence of the
sort usually employed by people reading guidebooks to each other in a
French cathedral: 'The week-nightly newscast's unique mix of
information, expert opinion, and debate has foreshadowed an industry
trend toward longer and more detailed coverage, while at the same time
helping to reveal a growing public appetite for informational
television. Nearly 4.5 million viewers watch the "MacNeil/ Lehrer
Report" each night during the prime viewing season. ...'
program with meat on its bones,' said the Association for Continuing
Higher Education, in presenting its 1981 Leadership Award. 'The
"MacNeil/ Lehrer Report" goes beyond the commercial networks' rushed
recital of news to bring us in-depth coverage of single issues. ...
There is a concern for ideas rather than video images and they accord
us the unusual media compliment of not telling us what to think, but
allowing us to draw our own conclusions after we weigh conflicting
views.' And the handout concludes in triumph with some findings from a
1980 Roper poll: 'Three quarters of those polled said they had
discovered pros and cons on issues on which they had not had opinions
ROBERT MACNEIL (voice over): Should one man own another?
Good evening. The problem is as old as man himself. Do property rights
extend to the absolute ownership of one man by another? Tonight, the
slavery problem. Jim?
Robin, advocates of the continuing system of slavery argue that the
practice has brought unparalleled benefits to the economy. They fear
that new regulations being urged by reformers would undercut America's
economic effectiveness abroad. Reformers, on the other hand, call for
legally binding standards and even for a phased reduction in the slave
force to something like 75 percent of its present size. Charlayne
Hunter- Gault is in Charleston. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Robin and Jim, I have here in Charleston, Mr. Ginn, head of the Cottongrowers Association. Robin?
MACNEIL: Mr. Ginn, what are the arguments for unregulated slavery?
Robin, our economic data show that attempts at regulation of working
hours, slave quarters, and so forth would reduce productivity and
indeed would be widely resented by the slaves themselves.
MACNEIL: You mean, the slaves would not like new regulations? They would resent them?
Exactly. Any curbing of the slave trade would offer the Tsar dangerous
political opportunities in western Africa, and menace the strategic
LEHRER: Thank you, Mr. Ginn. Robin?
Thank you, Mr. Ginn and Jim. The secretary of the Committee for
Regulatory Reform in Slavery is Eric Halfmeasure. Mr. Halfmeasure, give
us the other side of the story.
Robin, I would like to make one thing perfectly clear. We are
wholeheartedly in favor of slavery. We just see abuses that diminish
productivity and reduce incentives for free men and women to compete in
the marketplace. Lynching, tarring and feathering, rape, lack of
holidays, and that sort of thing. One recent study suggests that
regulation could raise productivity by 15 percent.
MACNEIL: I see. Thank you, Mr. Halfmeasure. Mr. Ginn?
GINN: Our studies show the opposite.
A few critics of slavery argue that it should be abolished outright.
One of them is Mr. Garrison. Mr. Garrison, why abolish slavery?
GARRISON: It is immoral for one man ...
Mr. Garrison, we're running out of time, I'm afraid. Let me very
quickly get some other points of view. Mr. Ginn, you think slavery is
MACNEIL: And you, Mr. Halfmeasure, think it should be regulated.
MACNEIL: Well, I've got you to disagree, haven't I? (Laughter) That's all we've got time for tonight. Goodnight, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MACNEIL: Did you sleep well last night?
LEHRER: I did, thank you.
MACNEIL: That's good. So did I. We'll be back again tomorrow night. I'm Robert MacNeil Good night.
'MacNeil/Lehrer Report' started in October 1975, in the aftermath of
Watergate. It was a show dedicated to the proposition that there are
two sides to every question, a valuable corrective in a period when the
American people had finally decided that there were absolutely and
definitely not two sides to every question. Nixon was a crook who had
rightly been driven from office; corporations were often headed by
crooks who carried hot money around in suitcases; federal officials
were crooks who broke the law on the say-so of the president.
was a dangerous moment, for a citizenry suddenly imbued with the notion
that there is not only a thesis and antithesis, but also a synthesis,
is a citizenry, capable of all manner of harm to the harmonious motions
of the status quo.
came the 'MacNeil/ Lehrer Report,' sponsored by public-television funds
and by the most powerful corporate forces in America, in the form of
Exxon, 'AT&T and the Bell System,' and other upstanding bodies.
Back to Sunday school went the excited viewers, to be instructed that
reality, as conveyed to them by television, is not an exciting affair
of crooked businessmen and lying politicians but a serious continuum in
which parties may disagree but in which all involved are struggling
manfully and disinterestedly for the public weal.
narcotizing, humorless properties of the 'MacNeil/Lehrer Report,'
familiar to anyone who has felt fatigue creep over him at 7:40 Eastern
time, are crucial to the show. Tedium is of the essence, since the
all-but- conscious design of the program is to project vacuous
dithering ('And now, for another view of Hitler ...') into the mind of
the viewers, until they are properly convinced that there is not one
answer to 'the problem,' but two or even three, and that since two
answers are no better than none, they might as well not bother with the
problem at all.
techniques employed by the show enhance this distancing and
anesthetizing. The recipe is unvarying. MacNeil and Lehrer exchange
modest gobbets of information with each other about the topic under
discussion. Then, with MacNeil crouching - rather like Kermit the Frog
in old age - down to the left and peering up, a huge face appears on
the screen and discussion is under way. The slightest discommoding
exchange, some intemperate observation on the part of the interviewee,
causes MacNeil to bat the ball hastily down to Washington, where Lehrer
sedately sits with his interviewee.
fits and starts, with Jim batting back to Robin and Robin batting
across to Charlayne, the program lurches along. The antagonists are
rarely permitted to joust with one another and ideally are sequestered
on their large screens. Sometimes, near the end of the show, the camera
will reveal that these supposed antagonists are in fact sitting
chummily, shoulder to shoulder, around the same table as Lehrer thus
indicating to the viewer that, while opinions may differ, all are
united in general decency of purpose. Toward the very end, MacNeil's
true role becomes increasingly exposed as he desperately tries to
suppress debate and substantive argument, with volley after volley of
'We're nearly out of time,' 'Congressman, in ten seconds could you' and
the final, relieved, 'That's all for tonight.'
even important that MacNeil and Lehrer say good night to each other so
politely every evening. In that final, sedate nocturnal exchange
everything is finally resolved, even though nothing has been resolved.
We can all go to bed now.
so to bed we go. The pretense is that viewers, duly presented with both
sides of the case, will spend the next segment of the evening weighing
the pro against the con and coming up with the answer. It is, in fact,
enormously difficult to recall anything that anyone has ever said on a
'MacNeil/Lehrer Report,' because the point has been to demonstrate that
since everything can be contradicted, nothing is worth remembering. The
show praised above all others for content derives its attention
entirely from form: the unvarying illustration that if one man can be
found to argue that cannibalism is bad, another can be found to argue
that it is not.
Actually, this is an
overstatement. 'MacNeil/ Lehrer' hates such violent extremes, and, by
careful selection of the show's participants, the show tries to make
sure that the viewer will not be perturbed by any views overly critical
of the political and business establishment.
ROBERT MACNEIL (voice over): Should one man eat another?
Good evening. Reports from the Donner Pass indicate that survivors fed
upon their companions. Tonight, should cannibalism be regulated? Jim?
Robin, the debate pits two diametrically opposed sides against each
other: the Human Meat-eaters Association, who favor a free market in
human flesh, and their regulatory opponents in Congress and the
consumer movement. Robin?
MACNEIL: Mr. Tooth, why eat human flesh?
TOOTH: Robin, it is full of protein and delicious too. Without human
meat, our pioneers would be unable to explore the West properly. This
would present an inviting opportunity to the French, who menace our
pioneer routes from the north.
MACNEIL: Thank you. Jim?
Now for another view of cannibalism. Bertram Brussell-Sprout is leading
the fight to control the eating of animal fats and meats. Mr. Sprout,
would you include human flesh in this proposed regulation?
Most certainly, Jim. Our studies show that some human flesh available
for sale to the public is maggot-ridden, improperly cut, and often
incorrectly graded. We think the public should be protected from such
MACNEIL: Some say it is wrong to eat human flesh at all. Mr. Prodnose, give us this point of view.
PRODNOSE: Robin, eating people is wrong. We say ...
MACNEIL: I'm afraid we're out of time. Good night, Jim, etc., etc.
back through the 'MacNeil/ Lehrer' scripts, the hardy reader will soon
observe how extraordinarily narrow is the range of opinion canvassed by
a show dedicated to dispassionate examination of the issues of the day.
The favored blend is usually a couple of congressmen or senators,
barking at each other from either side of the fence, corporate
chieftains, government executives, ranking lobbyists, and the odd
foreign statesman. The mix is ludicrously respectable, almost always
heavily establishment in tone. Official spokesmen of trade and interest
groups are preferred over people who only have something interesting to
constriction of viewpoint is particularly conspicuous in the case of
energy, an issue dear to the 'MacNeil/Lehrer Report.' 'Economics of
Nuclear Power,' for example, was screened on November 25, 1980, and
purported to examine why a large number of nuclear utilities were
teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Mustered to ponder the issue we
had the following rich and varied banquet: the president of the
Virginia Electric and Power Company; the vice president (for nuclear
operations) of Commonwealth Edison of Chicago; a vice president
(responsible for scrutinizing utility investments) at Paine Webber; and
the president of the Atomic Industrial Forum. The viewers of 'MacNeil/
Lehrer' did not, you may correctly surmise, hear much critical opinion
about nuclear power on that particular evening.
May 1, 1981, the 'Report' examined 'the problems and prospects of
getting even more oil out of our ground.' Participants in the
discussion about oil glut included some independent oil drillers, and
'experts' from Merrill Lynch, Phillips Petroleum Company, and the Rand
least on May 1 the viewers had more than one person saying the same
thing ('regulation is bad'). On March 27 they were invited to consider
the plans of the Reagan administration for a rebuilt navy. The
inquiring citizen was offered a trip around the battleship Iowa in the
company of MacNeil, and an extremely meek interview, conducted by both
MacNeil and Lehrer, of the Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman. No
dissenting views were allowed to intrude, beyond the deferential
inquiries of MacNeil and Lehrer, both of whom, it should be said, are
very bad interviewers, usually ignorant and always timid. By contrast,
Ted Koppel of ABC's 'Nightline' is a veritable tiger in interrogatory
spectrum of opinion thus offered is one that ranges from the corporate
right to cautious center-liberal. One should not be misled, by the
theatrical diversity of views deployed on the program,into thinking
that a genuinely wide spectrum of opinion is permitted. Moldering piles
of 'MacNeil/ Lehrer' transcripts before me on my desk attest to the
The show would be
nothing without Robert ('Robin') MacNeil. Canadian, with a layer of
high seriousness so thick it sticks to the screen, MacNeil anchors the
show to tedium and yanks at the hawser everytime the craft shows any
sign of floating off into uncharted waters. He seems to have learned -
on the evidence of his recent memoir, The Right Place at the Right Time
- the elements of his deadly craft in London, watching the BBC and
writing for Reuters.
is a man so self-righteously boring that he apparently had no qualms in
setting down the truth about his disgraceful conduct in Dallas on
November 22, 1963. MacNeil was there covering Kennedy's visit for NBC.
The shots rang out and he sprinted to the nearest telephone he could
find. It so happens that he dashed, without knowing its significance,
into the Texas Book Depository: 'As I ran up the steps and through the
door, a young man in shirt sleeves was coming out. In great agitation I
asked him where there was a phone. He pointed inside to an open space
where another man was talking on a phone situated next to a pillar and
said, "Better ask him." I ran inside. ...'
Later, MacNeil writes, 'I heard on television that a young man called
Oswald, arrested for the shooting, worked at the Texas Book Depository
and had left by the front door immediately afterward. Isn't that
strange, I told myself. He must have been leaving just about the time I
was running in...'
still, William Manchester demonstrated that there was a 95 percent
certainty that MacNeil had met Oswald. Any reporter, any human, with
anything other than treacle in his veins, would naturally make much of
the coincidence and divert children, acquaintances, and indeed a wider
public, with interesting accounts of Oswald's demeanor at this
significant moment. Not MacNeil. With Pecksniffian virtuousness, he
insists that the encounter was merely 'possible,' and that 'it is
titillating, but it doesn't matter very much.'
Such is the aversion to storytelling, the sodden addiction to the
mundane, that produced 'MacNeil/ Lehrer.' Like an Exocet missile,
MacNeil can spot a cliche, a patch of ennui, and home in on it with
dreadful speed. Witness his proclamation of political belief:
I find it more satisfying to belong with those people in all countries
who put their trust in Man's best quality, his rational intellect and
its ability to recognize and solve problems. It is distressing that the
recent course of American politics has caused that trust to be
ridiculed or dismissed as some sort of soft-headedness, inappropriate
to a virile nation confronting the dangerous world. It will be
unfortunate if being a 'liberal' remains an embarrassment, if young
Americans should begin to believe that conservatives are the only
has its absurd extreme: liberalism tending to inspire foolish altruism
and unwarranted optimism; conservatism leading to unbridled selfishness
and paranoia. Taken in moderation, I prefer the liberal impulse: it is
the impulse behind the great forces that have advanced mankind, like
Christianity. I find it hard to believe that Jesus Christ was a
political conservative, whatever views are espoused in his name today.
all my instinctive liberalism, my experience of politics in many
countries has not left me wedded to any particular political parties.
Rather, I have found myself politically dining a la carte, on
is the mind-set behind 'MacNeil/ Lehrer.' 'I have my own instinctive
aversion to being snowed,' he writes at another point. 'The more I hear
everyone telling me that some public person is wonderful, the more I
ask myself, Can he really be all that wonderful? Conversely [for
MacNeil there is always a 'conversely' poking its head round the door],
I never believe anyone can be quite as consistently terrible as his
Attila the Hun? Pol Pot? Nixon? John D. Rockefeller? I'm afraid that's
all we have time for tonight. We've run out of time. Good night.
Alex Cockburn is a well known social and political critic, and a pioneer in the field of media analysis. His essays have appeared in The Nation, Harper's, The Village Voice, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, and many other publications in Britain, Europe and the Americas.
(First published in Counterpunch, 6.30.05)