(updated below - Update II)
In his New York Times column today, Ross Douthat laments the lack of real political debates on cable news shows, and writes this:
What might work, instead, is a cable news network devoted to actual debate. For all the red-faced shouting, debate isn’t really what you get on Fox and MSNBC. Hannity has ditched Colmes, and conservatives are only invited on Rachel Maddow’s show when they have something nasty to say about Republicans.
Here we find two of the most common pundit afflictions: (1) a compulsion to assert equivalencies even when they don't exist, and (2) a willingness to spout anything without doing the slightest work to find out if it's true. Douthat's claim about Maddow -- that "conservatives are only invited on [her] show when they have something nasty to say about Republicans" -- is completely false.
The real problem is not that Maddow fails to invite conservatives on her show; she does exactly that relentlessly. The problem is that most leading conservatives refuse to be interviewed by anyone -- such as Maddow -- who will conduct adversarial interviews. They thus restrict themselves to the friendly confines of Fox News or to television interview shows where the hosts refuse to question them aggressively due to a fear of being perceived as something other than "neutral." Indeed, as I noted before, after Maddow had interviewed GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty (who said nothing "nasty about Republicans"): Maddow is constantly attempting to lure right-wing and other Republican guests to her show, but they almost always refuse. As she put it after the Pawlenty interview:
Governor Pawlenty represents Minnesota and I will just say -- we ask a lot of Republicans to be on the show and they almost always say no. So, I am particularly grateful whenever anybody says yes. And to any Republicans out there who we ask -- see -- I'm not so bad.
And as Maddow told me this morning regarding Douthat's claim:
Just off the top of my head and just recently -- I've repeatedly asked people like Michael Steele, Liz Cheney, Dick Cheney, Scott Brown, Joe Lieberman, Dana Perino to be on my show. Even though those folks do other cable, they've all declined to come on with me.
I've also had folks like J.D. Hayworth, Tom Ridge, Tim Phillips, Rick Berman, and other conservatives on the show not to bash conservatives or republicans, but to speak their piece.
What Douthat wrote today was just entirely false. He had no way of knowing who Maddow invites, never asked her, and instead just made up a "fact" and put it in his column without checking. And, just as bad, his doing that concealed the real problem: leading political figures are able to spew all sorts of claims, in all sorts of venues, while steadfastly avoiding answering questions from the handful of journalists (like Maddow) who will ask them real questions. Speaking of which: I'm going to email Douthat to ask him for the basis of his claim today and see if he can identify it.
UPDATE: Douthat's reply is here. I actually agree with the overall point of his column -- that cable news is basically a wasteland, even when it purports to present "debates," and that it could benefit greatly from much more substantive and meaningful discussions among those who disagree. But the claims he made to rope Maddow into that point --- all in order to present her as the liberal counter-example to Sean Hannity -- are simply inaccurate. He also ought to print a correction in his next column.
UPDATE II: As The Nation's Ari Melber wrote quite some time ago, Maddow makes it a point frequently to complain that virtually no conservatives or Republicans will accept her invitation to appear on her show. Douthat need not have even called Maddow to know what he wrote was false; he could have just used the new invention called "Google."