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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: In world full of opinions, where are fresh ones?

Jeff Simon

Let's talk about opinions. We are, after all, drowning in them these days.

Please don't tell me the problem with all the most conspicuous journalists -- especially on TV news -- after Robert Mueller's anti-climactic appearance before two congressional committees last week was that they suddenly and awkwardly turned into "drama critics."

No they didn't. Not unless they were all in the same hearing room with Mueller watching him testify live, they didn't.

Let's be accurate. What they had turned into was TV critics, which is exactly what you can also expect them all to be after the newest Demolition Derby "debate" among Democratic presidential candidates. TV critic is a different profession from drama critic and one that is seldom understood by ordinary journalists (i.e. reporters and editors).

It's a long-received opinion inside American journalism that critics in general are people who pull their opinions out of their navels, sneer epigrams in every direction and then go off thinking highly of themselves so they can attend parties with fancy folks. (Think Addison DeWitt in "All About Eve.")

That wasn't exactly how commentators sounded on TV after Mueller's six hours of congressional testimony. Nor is it the way they sounded the last time the Democratic presidential hopefuls ganged up on America.

What everyone said about Mueller was that, no matter what dramatic facts he imparted, he was a "disaster."

Which seemed to be utterly inarguable if you were only judging his televised appearance before congress as a TV event. He was -- quod erat demonstratum -- not "good television." He was old, weary, monosyllabic and quite clearly unhappy to be where he was forced to be.

If fomer Bills guru Marv Levy had suddenly shown up at his side and asked him "Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?" he would, no doubt, have come up with at least a dozen different answers.

But that was obviously the point. His aggressively ineffective delivery was obviously designed to convey that fact above all. He was saying to everyone (especially unhappy Democrats) "you were foolish to force me to be on TV. I'm old and I'm not good at it and I've never wanted to be. It's an inferior way to convey information. The only good way would have been to read our report itself."

Which he refused to do aloud because he no doubt knew his limitations.

The trouble is it was a foolish attempt to overturn America media realities since the Kennedy/Nixon debates in 1960. It was, at that historic moment, television and television alone that so decisively gave John F. Kennedy the presidency. It also took over American culture.

It was television -- not alone, certainly, but primarily -- that gave us the diabolical fact of Donald Trump's presidency. He came to office from a terrible, but damnably successful reality television show. In doing so, he revealed that, despite the prejudices of received opinion in the "Peak TV" era, TV garbage had, in the omni-TV era, become more powerful than ever. Its hold on the opinions of those who prefer not to think has, if anything, become greater.

That's where Mueller, by his own design, failed miserably. No watcher of Trump's "The Apprentice" could possibly enjoy what he said much less approve of it; not for a minute. It required thought to do so.

The way opinions work now in the Twitter era is this:

Opinions are shared. If shared by a majority, they turn into received opinion. If received opinions hang around long enough, they become audience prejudices, and prevailing opinions. Then you just have to pray there are people prowling around who think sensibly and intelligently and independently -- and with integrity -- about the whole process.

Which is why the people who should have been most prominent after the Mueller "performance" weren't the CNN reporters -- not even experienced writers like Jake Tapper and Jeffrey Toobin -- but actual TV critics experienced in watching how TV affects its watchers.

Why, I'd like to know, hadn't anyone thought to invite the New Yorker's Pulitzer Prize winning Emily Nussbaum to the proceedings? This is, of course, not to say for a minute she'd want to show up on the tube any more than Mueller did.

But if all the journalists are going to act like TV critics, shouldn't cable TV news present real ones? Or those experienced in the neighborhood? (The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan, for instance -- The News' former editor. Or Jeff Greenfield. Or Neal Gabler. Or James Wolcott. Or Tom Carson. And yes, former New York Times Drama Critic Frank Rich, whose post-Times life actually included working on "Veep.")

To all those who think 1960 is "ancient times," it is ancient history that television has long subsumed the national TV process.

Thinking aloud about television is a very specific occupation in journalism and the ones who do it fluently ought to be gainfully and significantly employed trying to do so on TV during major dramatic news events. (Congressional hearings, for instance. And mass "debates" like this weeks's Democratic Party rabble rouse on CNN.)

Whether those critics would consent to such appearances is another matter, but television's hegemony over modern American thought has long been established. It was a mark of how strongly -- and recklessly -- received opinion turns into mass prejudice that even creative news organizations are so terrified of using actual experienced critics wisely.

Granted, many, if not most, critics make for "bad television." They probably don't look like Tapper or Megyn Kelly or converse with as much casual wit and sense as Toobin and Greenfield. But they might actually present a real idea worth presenting, before the whole opinion-congealing progress toward prejudice begins.

What Mueller conveyed to any sensible TV critic from the moment he sat down was this: He was a tired man who was testifying under subtextual protest because Americans don't read anymore -- certainly not book-length versions of the Mueller Report.

And that includes TV journalists. (Would CBS, in its post-Murrow Stanton/Friendly era have had a two-hour CBS prime time special on the Mueller Report? Probably. In an era of so few networks, it would have meant something, but then, our power grid is now completely different.)

The number of actual critics in America who might actually impart original ways of thinking is, I think, surprisingly large, even though the channels of opinion have been glutted by the towering, babbling Babel of the Internet (where one-third of America, at least, is engaged in self-appointed punditry).

Should anyone like to see how critics -- real TV critics -- operate I can recommend two books. Nussbaum's "I Like to Watch" rethinks all the prevailing prejudice about TV itself and then goes on from there. Her essay "How Jokes Won the Election" was a brilliant analysis of how we got where we did.

Brilliant New York Times' TV critic James Poniewozick will bring out his superb new book "Audience of One" on Sept. 10, in which case, it seems to me, the number of the most prominent members of the current American journalistic commentariat ought to increase by one.

For sure.

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