Press Box

PBS’s Worst Show—Now on Fox

Don’t want to watch The Journal Editorial Report? Fox doesn’t want you to, either.

A shortlist of the dreariest news shows ever committed to the TV screen would have to include The Beltway Boys, Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke’s amateurish production; Heartland w/ John Kasich, which makes The Beltway Boys look professional; The Lineup, a newsmagazine that nobody has ever heard of; and The Big Story Primetime, which proves bigger is not necessarily better.

All these shows run on the Fox News Channel, and it’s no accident that the network’s savvy programmers schedule them for Saturday evening—Saturday evening being the period that nobody but invalids and the incarcerated tune in for broadcast television, let alone cable.

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But the munificent Fox News programmers hold back the worst show for last on Saturday night, scheduling The Journal Editorial Report in the 11 p.m. slot. The only act of hostility more overt than running a DON’T WATCH Chyron on the screen during the show would be to air it at 6 a.m. on Sunday. Oh, did I mention that The Journal Editorial Report repeats on Fox News at 6 a.m. on Sunday?

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The Journal Editorial Report, hosted by Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot and his editorial page colleagues, moved from the socialist Public Broadcasting Service, where the last show ran on Dec. 2, to Rupert Murdoch’s capitalist welfare network on Jan. 21. In a pissy editorial about the program’s departure from PBS, the Journal claimed (Nov. 17, 2005) that it had been “blackballed by some of the largest PBS stations,” noting that in eight of the top 30 markets a public station didn’t run the show, and that four ran it “in the dead zone of the post-midnight morning.” If running in 22 of the 30 top markets constitutes blackballing, what do you call an 11 p.m. slot on cable? Nut-punched?

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Viewed or read in transcript, the tedious Editorial Report is enough to make you forgive Bill O’Reilly his transgressions. No wonder Fox buried it in the schedule. In last week’s episode of Editorial Report, Gigot conducts a fawning interview with former Deputy Attorney General John Yoo, the theorist behind many of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 legal policies. Gigot asks sensible rhetorical questions about the limits of presidential power until the interview’s end, when he states Yoo’s position for him: “It sounds like what you’re saying is it’s more than a legal fight. This is really a fight—a political fight and a fight between the branches and between political actors.”

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“I think that’s right,” replies Yoo, grabbing the pass for a finger-roll into the basket.

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Next we’re treated to a “panel” discussion featuring Gigot, his deputy editor, Dan Henninger, and their colleagues Melanie Kirkpatrick and James Taranto. The premise of most panel discussions is that the performances aren’t rehearsed, that spontaneity will create intellectual sparks, and everyone with a seat at the table is an independent thinker.

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But seeing as these like-minded Editorial Reporters labor on the same editorial page all week, they know what their panel-mates are going to say before it comes out of their mouths. “Dan’s absolutely right,” says Kirkpatrick. “That’s right,” she says later. “Yes, I think that’s right,” she says still. It’s a TV confederacy of ditto-heads! And given that they all work for Gigot, none of them are likely to say, “Paul, you ignorant slut,” when he deserves it.

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I’m somewhat sympathetic to the Editorial Report because I know how hard producing a public-affairs TV show is: When Slate set out to create a TV pilot of its own in 1999, with dreams of running on PBS, I made sure not to lift a finger to help the doomed effort. When my colleagues told me how bad the finished tape was, I refused to view it. The pilot remains such a subject of embarrassment in our offices that staffers can quote from it and describe its most overwrought scenes seven years later. In my mind’s eye, I see Will Saletan dramatically knocking a bunch of chess pieces off a table to demonstrate some idea.

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My sympathies, however, do not prevent me from testifying that this 30-minute bucket of lumpy gravy congeals long before its first commercial break. Unless Gigot and company inject some debate or genuine edification into The Journal Editorial Report—and quick—I predict its next stop will be Sunday, 5 a.m., on the Golf Channel, just before the repeat of Playing Lessons From the Pros.

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Addendum: A reader insists that I mention that The Journal Editorial Report had an even earlier incarnation on CNBC, but died there.

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Why am I so mean to the Wall Street Journal editorial page? In years past they’ve run opinion pieces by me as well as book reviews, which the page oversees. Could it be I’m making an argument based on its merits? You be the judge in e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. All e-mails that begin, “Jack, you’re absolutely right,” will be answered first. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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