if you only watch MSNBC's endless, apparently nameless daytime news program intermittently, you may not be aware of the MSNBC Contributors. Their appearances are random and relatively brief, and the MSNBC Web site contains almost no mention of them. While no one seems to know exactly how many of them there are -- they show up in rotating groups of three -- I've spotted at least a dozen. Some, like Eric Alterman, appear quite frequently; others, like Omar Wasow, I've seen only once.
At first glance, their duties seem similar to the panelists on roundtable shows like "The McLaughlin Group." Articulate, informed, opinionated, they're there to engage in off-the-cuff discussions about whatever news stories and issues the day happens to bring. But the Contributors differ in many ways from TV's traditional polemicists. For starters, they're notably younger, fresher-looking and more ethnically diverse than the fleshy-faced, WASPy dyspeptics who dominate the roundtable shows. That's a good thing, but the next difference isn't: The Contributors are boring. Indeed, nary a one of them even comes close to rivaling McLaughlin's florid, community-theater King Lear bombasticism, or William F. Buckley's deadpan circumspection.
Oh, they have their moments. Eric Alterman seethes nicely. Staring glassily at the floor, barely opening his mouth as he speaks, he comes across as a volatile ventriloquist who's decided the whole stupid fucking world is his dummy. Betsy Hart is blessed with a head full of facts and a wonderfully dismissive air of presumption. With her saucer eyes rolling and her big mouth twisting into 17 different shades of disdain, she's like an Al Hirschfeld caricature of herself. Don Walter adds a note of pompous vanity and a dash of venom -- on a recent show, he joked about wanting to slap Alterman -- but in the end he seems too nervous about mussing his hair to really mix it up with anyone.
This sense of restraint extends to all the Contributors. It's as if they feel reined in by MSNBC's commitment to the Jon Katzian myth of new media rationalism to go at it like the old media blabbermouths do. So they mostly let each other have their say -- but as with all TV roundtable shows, even the most articulate, well-informed of them can't get beyond platitudes in the limited time allotted. On shows like "The McLaughlin Group," the participants compensate for this lack of real information by providing a kind of squawking-head infotainment, but the Contributors deliver no such payoff. Every time tensions start to escalate among them, the segment invariably ends. And by the time they appear again, the momentum has been lost.
Unlike McLaughlin and his colleagues, however, the Contributors aren't meant to carry the show. They seem to be peripheral on purpose, designed to provide one more decentralizing element to the proceedings. MSNBC's midday show is a traditional news broadcast opened up and made accessible -- "World News Tonight" mixed with "Oprah" and the Home Shopping Network. It's the news as environment rather than content. To keep viewers hanging out in this environment, a sense of connection is crucial. Thus the constant petitions to participate: "It's time to get connected," reads the MSNBC promo spot. "Stay connected," urges anchorperson Bridget Quinn, with the clear-eyed, soft-spoken sincerity of a really persuasive life insurance agent. E-mail addresses and an 800 number flash on the screen almost as often as the MSNBC logo.
It's mostly a well-choreographed sham, of course. If all of MSNBC's viewers shed their habitual cathode quiescence and actually tried to get connected, the company's switchboards and servers would be overwhelmed in a matter of minutes. As it is, only a few of the viewers who do try to get connected actually do. I say this from glum experience -- for weeks I tried to connect myself. News kept breaking, the anchors kept soliciting viewer response, and I kept dialing and e-mailing, eager to share my opinions: The Heaven's Gate Internet link? If the Web's so persuasive, how come more companies aren't advertising on it? Liquor advertising on TV? Not until someone develops a special Mr. Jenkins-chip. But connection eluded me. My e-mails never appeared, and no one ever responded to them. Only once did I manage to crack the busy signal and get voice mail.
It was in the wake of such disappointments that I began to realize the true role of the Contributors. They were my surrogates -- people with opinions, hanging out and watching the show from the wings, occasionally getting a chance to express themselves on some subject. That explains why they're not all members of the media. (In addition to several journalists, there are also lawyers and investment bankers and political strategists amongst them.) That's why they're often asked to speak about topics about which they know virtually nothing. Asked for her opinion on who might win the Oscar for best actress, one hapless Contributor was forced to confess, "I don't know, I haven't seen any of the movies." Just like I would have done!
In light of this new perspective, I gave up on the 800 number and the e-mail address and began to send messages directly to the Contributors. As my official stand-ins, it was their duty to respond to me. And besides, what else do they have to do when they're not on? The show is shot live; they have to be in the studio somewhere, waiting around for their next segment. Why not answer their e-mail?
So I wrote to Rick Stengel about the TV liquor ad controversy. His main gig is at Time -- surely he would have an opinion on a development that could divert crucial advertising revenue from the magazine industry. And I wrote to Kimberle Crenshaw, a law professor with the odd habit of using the word "delicious" to describe everything from movies to economic policy: Was she on a diet, I wondered? Then I wrote to Eric Alterman, asking for tips about how I could land a gig as a Contributor. With all the free time I have and my collection of colorful hand gestures, I'm a natural for the part.
Alas, none of them have responded either.
But that's all right. Just knowing they're there for me is enough. The way I look at it, they're sort of like saints -- people who were once like me, who have since ascended to a privileged intermediary place in the grand media cosmology, petitioning the highest media gods on my behalf. My e-mails to them are like prayers, and no response is necessary: I believe in the evidence of things not seen. It's a particularly Catholic form of interactivity, and I think that's a good thing. More often than not, TV erodes our moral values. It's nice to see it exercising them for a change.