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Shillable Hours

On the compromised commentators of cable TV

In a development that has surprised no one, it appears that Corey Lewandowski—the former head of the Trump campaign who was cashiered at the insistence of the candidate’s children earlier this summer—remains a paid consultant of the rampaging bigoted ego atop the 2016 GOP presidential ticket. According to a recent ABC report, Lewandowski has Secret Service clearance granting him backstage access at Trump campaign events, he checks in daily with the nominee by phone, and he continues to pull down a campaign salary from Team Trump—all while milking a “lucrative” contract at CNN, giving maximum network exposure for Trump-approved talking points.

There’s no doubt that Lewandowski’s double-dipping gigs are sleazy and improper in the extreme—and “conflict of interest” doesn’t fully describe this sort of mobbed-up agitprop masquerading as punditry. Nevertheless, as one scans the blasted intellectual horizon known as the cable commentary industry, it’s undeniable that Lewandowski’s ethical debauchery is more a matter of degree than of difference. If nothing else, ABC’s report must be a goad to the avarice of CNN’s other in-house Trump shill, Jeffrey Lord, who obligingly recites every conceivable policy reversal and half-baked talking point supplied by his candidate-retainer, without any measurable enhancement of Lord’s pundit brand or bottom line. (We can only assume, by the way, that Trump’s communications director Katrina Pierson is compensated in the currency of a distant, Tea Party-inhabited planet.)

But the larger point here is that the compromised commentary furnished by Lewandowski is barely distinguishable from what passes for impartial campaign analysis in the cable wasteland. As Lee Fang has documented at The Intercept, Hillary Clinton’s campaign maintains a tidily compensated fistful of pro-Hillary cable spinners on the payroll of the campaign proper or a closely aligned super PAC—without cable producers bothering to disclose the relationship. (Jeb Bush’s late campaign also had a similar relationship with a cable-ready surrogate, which only goes to prove that rank corruption is not always a guarantee of success.)

Everywhere on your cable dial, the hills are alive with the self-interested maunderings of leased political mouthpieces.

It’s true, of course, that viewers would benefit from straightforward disclosure—a simple chyron displayed beneath the name of this or that sold-out campaign hack. But such disclosures alone would do nothing to address the real moral rot of our televisual treatment of political commentary; the problem is more intellectual than financial. The grievous, civically toxic miscalculation of campaign-addled cable bookers isn’t that campaign operatives may come bearing a damning undisclosed financial tie; it is, rather, the howlingly unempirical supposition that campaign operatives have anything remotely insightful or newsworthy to say in the first place.

Just imagine if, in any other field of endeavor, we were to accept the utterances of truth-averse transactional PR flacks entirely at face value—indeed, as founts of duly anointed “insider” expertise. In such a world, you’d see Nancy Grace appointed to the Supreme Court. ’Roid-besotted self-promoter José Canseco would be the commissioner of baseball. Roger Ailes would head up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Bernie Madoff would be treasury secretary. Hell, a diehard Objectivist might even be placed at the head of the Federal Reserve. (Oh right—never mind.)

And yet, everywhere on your cable dial, the hills are alive with the self-interested maunderings of leased political mouthpieces. Ever since that mournful long-ago day when David Gergen emerged from Beltway hibernation to see his own shadow, it’s been the great organizing conceit of televised political commentary that D.C.’s impression-managing class knows something useful. But one scours the civic memory in vain to summon up even a mildly unscripted aperçu, let alone something that would qualify as a consensus-challenging departure from campaign-driven business as usual.

Part of the problem, of course, is the medium itself. As Jason Linkins observes in his classic Baffler anatomy of the peculiar malady known as cable TV political coverage, producers of this blather are “mired in the stupidity” of our vacuous political discourse to the point where “it seems to rewrite their DNA.” And as a result, he writes, the cable universe is now ruled by the counter-intellectual business model perfected by the Fox News erstwhile maximum leader, Roger Ailes:

Ailes’s true legacy now appears to be the creation of a hermetically sealed worldview, generating an endless series of glorified talking points that look and sound like news, without ever once challenging a viewer’s preconceived notions about the world and how power operates within it. And whether or not the competitors trailing behind Fox’s wildly successful business model care to admit it, they work from the same playbook. Why think when you can feel? Why have simple emotions, when high dudgeon and lusty outrage offer such heroic highs? And why simply convey information, when you can conjure up a devoted viewership by the sheer force of your own operatic self-satisfaction? It turns out, in other words, that the best way to shun the panic-inducing unpredictability of the Nielsen ratings market is to consistently deliver smugness—to conscientiously program and package your news product so as to protectively seal your audience in the unquenchable righteousness of their own cultural grievance-addiction.

Within the firmly delineated boundaries of this claustral vision, the political operative represents the perfect medium of message-delivery. He or she is a reliable branding device, assuring producers and viewers alike of the undeviating metaphysical fastness of paint-by-number two-party political debate. What’s more, paid political messengers can always be counted on the repress their actual human presuppositions and values for the sake of cleanly delivered, leadership-sanctioned talking-point recitation; it is, after all, what they already do for a living. This way neither on-air cable personalities nor the viewers at home ever have to suffer the cognitive dissonance of hearing Paul Begala muse out loud that maybe Team Hillary is botching a historic chance to redraw the electoral map, or Frank Luntz speculate that a focus-grouped incantation of the right catchphrases may not actually save the Trump campaign.

It’s increasingly difficult to distinguish opportunistic camera-ready pols from their ostensibly impartial on-air minders.

This on-air intellectual sclerosis is indeed by now so advanced that it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish opportunistic camera-ready pols from their ostensibly impartial on-air minders. This is more than simply a matter of veteran political hacks like Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell posing as above-it-all truth tellers. If you manage to subject yourself to a Mark Halperin Q. and A. with candidate Trump, you can’t help but wonder why the campaign continues to keep Corey Lewandowski or Stephen Bannon on the payroll—here’s a multiplatform, bestselling horse-race chronicler who’s essentially doing their job for free. It’s actually gotten to the point that Beltway programmers and op-ed editors can hail, say, Joe Scarborough as an independent conservative voice because he rapidly fell in, then out of, love with Donald Trump.

So if concerned media scolds really want to abolish the corruption represented by Corey Lewandowski’s undisclosed conflicts of interest, the real solution isn’t to have Lewandowski bounced from the Trump campaign’s payroll, or to monotonously disclose his Trump employment each time he starts snarling into a studio camera. No, the only surefire safeguard likely to preserve and enhance the quality of our political discourse is to banish all political operatives from campaign commentary. Let them fan out directly to the lobbying sinecures that are their ultimate safe harbor, without permitting them to pause and indulge their fantasies of intellectual relevance.

And here’s a thought: Rather than have our professional image-enhancing class preside over the terms of public political debate, train the cameras and microphones on people who have actual knowledge to impart. While the comedy takeover of the on-air punditsphere is decidedly overblown, a figure like John Oliver commands serious attention because he’s puckishly turned his cable platform into a genuine outlet for in-depth investigative journalism. There’s likewise nothing stopping cable news producers from having actual reporting from beyond the Beltway terrarium drive their on-air political coverage. Or failing that, they might at least try doling out pundit gigs to verifiably knowledgeable humans: historians (and no, the fake discipline of “presidential history” doesn’t count), novelists, climate scientists, health care practitioners (no, not this one), actual undocumented immigrants—the possibilities are endless, if only someone with a modicum of creativity and moral imagination is granted access to a booking list. Meanwhile, Corey Lewandowski can re-occupy his still-warm seat at Americans for Prosperity. And don’t worry—David Gergen won’t lack for corporate-padded speaking gigs.