The Sunday shows’ fascination with John McCain

For anybody who’s been paying attention, it didn’t exactly take the smart folks at The Upshot (The New York Times‘ data blog) to reveal that John McCain has been the most frequently booked Sunday talk show guest since Barack Obama took office, or that number 2 (no, I don’t mean it that way) on the list is McCain’s affable assistant, Lindsey Graham. But OK, they did it anyway. Turns out McCain has been on your Sunday morning teevee a grand total of 97 times since 2009, out of (my unofficial count) 297 Sundays over that period of time (Graham comes in at 85, and for the Both Sides Brigade, 3 and 4 are Democrats David Axelrod and Dick Durbin). This means that, on nearly one out of every three weeks over the past 5 and a half years, you could turn on some Sunday talk show and see John McCain there complaining about how we’re not bombing enough people around the world. This is more than any other political figure over that period of time, and really, when you consider the potential breadth of topics these shows could be covering and the nearly infinite variety of guests they could be booking, is pretty astonishing.

Over at Daily Kos, Hunter tries to make sense of McCain’s popularity:

I’ll be honest, I find the media fixation with exploring the thoughts of John McCain baffling. I realize this is the part of the bit where I am supposed to come up with some wisdom as to why his thoughts on foreign policy are so dominant despite their own track record, or at least a few conjectures, but I’ve always been stumped by it. It is true that he (1) is a still-living human being who can talk and (2) seems to be always willing to oblige, but that still does not explain the apparent fetish for booking him. Yes, he is one of the Republicans in a position of theoretical foreign-policy authority, but does it not matter that he is demonstrably not good at it?

No, it doesn’t. At the risk of being glib, I’m pretty sure you can boil McCain’s popularity with Sunday show bookers down to a handful of key points:

  • he’s a prominent figure
  • particularly on the subject of foreign policy, which is squarely within the purview of the Washington Wise Men who dominate both the commentariat and the audience of the Sunday talk shows
  • and he’s happy to forcefully criticize the foreign policy of the current president
  • which he does consistently from the militarist perspective, so he gets to be considered a Serious Person and not some dumb peacenik hippie freak
  • and he likes going on TV all the time and saying the same stuff over and over again

I mean, go down the list of Sunday show guests and see how far you get before you find a guest who might plausibly have been invited on to criticize Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda from the perspective that we’re being too violent (that we shouldn’t have intervened in Libya, say, or that the drone program was a counterproductive nightmare). You’ll have to go pretty far down the list. The top 4 most frequent guests are McCain (to say his foreign policy can be boiled down to “kill ’em all” is probably unfair, but only a little bit), Graham (ditto, and I mean literally ditto), and two guys who are basically Obama surrogates. You can basically figure out what any of these guys is going to say before they ever get on TV and say it, which seems to be what the Sunday shows want in general.

It actually doesn’t matter that McCain is wrong so often that if he says “good morning” you’d better check your watch before you reply. Hunter concludes that McCain is a “punditry Kardashian” — in other words, he’s famous for being famous, which is true to some extent but ignores that there are substantive (well, “substantive”) reasons why the Sunday shows turn to him so often, the reasons I outlined above. Being wrong doesn’t matter as long as you’re wrong in the right way, and being overplayed doesn’t matter as long as you’re reliably going to say what the producers want you to say. There is virtually no chance that McCain will deviate from his regular script, and that script is very precious to the networks, so they love him.

The fact that the kind of thinking behind this style of booking has produced a steady decline in the ratings for all the Sunday talk shows also doesn’t matter, because the shows themselves are supposed to be prestige pieces for the network news divisions, not commercial successes. It doesn’t matter if anybody outside of the DC-NYC corridor actually watches these shows, as long as that crowd watches and talks about them. David Gregory didn’t lose his gig at Meet the Press because the ratings declined under his watch, he lost his gig because the ratings declined relative to the ABC and CBS versions of the same show, and that relative decline, and not the show’s content (or “content”) became The Thing everybody was talking about when they talked about Meet the Press. These shows aren’t supposed to be compelling to most people, they’re not supposed to feature a diverse range of viewpoints or topics, and they’re not supposed to report any real news (which, as Alex Pareene points out, costs money). They’re supposed to cater to the egos and conventional wisdom of the DC punditocracy, and under that objective regularly booking John McCain makes a lot of sense.

"What? Come on your TV program this Sunday? Well, I don't normally go in for that sort of thing, but what the heck, let's do it!"
“What? Come on your TV program this Sunday? Well, I don’t normally go in for that sort of thing, but what the heck, let’s do it!”

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