David Zurawik

There's nothing funny about politics as entertainment

Stephen Colbert, right, talks with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush during the premiere episode of "The Late Show," Tuesday Sept. 8, 2015, in New York.

Call it the summer of Trump. The candidate's face seemed to be on a TV screen every time I looked at one. But with the arrival of new fall programs, I was expecting relief.

Instead, one of the first and biggest of the new arrivals, "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," debuted Tuesday on CBS and set off a late-night booking war of even more candidates and politicians on TV.


Jeb Bush was one of Colbert's two guests for his premiere. The other was George Clooney. Be honest: Would you book phlegmatic Jeb Bush for the first hour of the rest of your life as host in one of the most competitive time periods in popular culture?

But Colbert did, and made light entertainment out of it — even with Bush looking mainly out of it on a talk-show couch.


That booking was followed by Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday, with some wondering before his appearance whether he was going to announce as a Democratic candidate for president on Colbert's set in New York's Ed Sullivan Theater. (He didn't.)

Friday night, it was NBC's turn, with Donald Trump himself visiting Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show." This Wednesday, Hillary Clinton arrives. Will the former secretary of state be slow jamming the news?

The biggest TV attraction Wednesday night will be CNN's presidential debates, with the highest-polling GOP candidates at 8 p.m. and the others at 6. The primetime GOP debate on Fox News last month drew 24 million viewers — the most ever for a debate during the primary season. And it really isn't even the primary season yet.

The week after, Colbert has Sen. Ted Cruz, a GOP candidate, on Sept. 21, followed by Trump (Sept. 22) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Sept. 23). Warren has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Biden.

As a media critic and political junkie, I have been complaining for decades about TV not spending enough time on politics.

But this year, with television spending more time than ever on presidential politics this early in an election cycle, even I am wondering if enough is enough, given the quality of the coverage. More really is less, it seems, when it comes to the kind of information viewers are getting from many of the TV appearances of politicians this time around.

Candidates are all over television, but instead of being questioned and vetted by journalists, they're interacting in front of the cameras with show hosts and comedians. The result of that new dynamic often has more to do with entertainment and amusement than it does news and information. Is this any way to pick a president?

Trump, who surged to 32 percent in a CNN poll of GOP candidates announced Thursday, has been getting the majority of TV time. And thanks to his ability to attract viewers, he has been able to control most of his appearances in ways only a sitting president might.


For the most part, either he calls into shows and is put on the air, or the interviewer comes to him in Trump Towers and talks to the candidate in the lobby.

The only cable or network show host I am aware of who has refused to play the call-in game, which allows Trump to unduly control the conversation by talking over the host or dictating when the call ends, is Chris Wallace on his "Fox News Sunday."

"This is the first election cycle ever where I've seen some television shows doing phoners with a presidential candidate," Wallace wrote in an email response to The Baltimore Sun.

"'Fox News Sunday' is not going to play that game," the veteran broadcaster continued. "The whole point of interviewing a candidate is to give voters as much insight as possible — into who the politician is, what he or she thinks, how he or she handles himself. When you can't look them in the eye, see how they react to a tough question — when you don't even know if they are reading from talking points — I think it's a disservice to the viewer."

Trump has come to rule morning TV talk shows with this tactic — sometimes getting 10 minutes or more of generally uncontested airtime.

As amusing as it might be for some viewers to see and hear him making sarcastic comments about his opponents, how is that helping viewers cast more informed votes?


In the same vein, what did we really learn from about Bush from his appearance on Colbert's new show Tuesday night?

That the candidate thinks "we have to re-establish a degree of civility"?

Who isn't for more civility?

When asked by Colbert in what ways he differs politically from his brother, George, the former governor of Florida replied, "Well, I'm obviously younger, much better looking."

I wonder how many times that canned line has been used on the campaign trail.

And Colbert is a political genius by the standards of late-night show hosts. You think Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon are going to get more out of a candidate like Bush?


Meanwhile, the savvier candidates get yet another TV time slot through which they can reach millions of potential voters for free with little real vetting.

Politics in late-night TV isn't new. Bill Clinton set the template for end-running the political press with all its pesky questions when he went on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1992 and played his saxophone to "Heartbreak Hotel."

President Barack Obama used late-night TV even more effectively.

On his last appearance on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," Obama not only had the host giving him free rein to sell his nuclear arms deal with Iran, but he actually got Stewart to endorse it. Then Stewart sat mute as the president urged young viewers to write to their representatives in Congress on behalf of the controversial deal. It was the late-night talk show as cable commercial. All that was missing was a toll-free 800 number with operators "standing by."

That's how an entertainment show is used as a political sales tool — and that's dangerous to democracy. Trump, a salesman's salesman with primetime TV training, might be even better at using the medium.

In part as a generational gut check, I asked Brian Stelter, CNN's 30-year-old senior media correspondent, for his feelings about the quantity and quality of political coverage on TV — particularly with Colbert, Trump and the late-night booking war.


"When a reality TV star is running for president, it stands to reason that you're going to see him show up on entertainment shows or late-night shows," the host of "Reliable Sources" said. "I mean, his campaign is primarily built on television appearances."

Putting the late-night booking wars in the larger context of the blurring of media genres, Stelter said, "As entertainment and news blur, the entertainers are performing acts of journalism. Colbert is performing quite a few acts of journalism on his show — if even accidentally."

Stelter is more comfortable with that development than I am. He invoked the examples of Fox News anchorman Bret Baier and MSNBC's "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough.

"We're in an era now where a Stephen Colbert interview with Jeb Bush and a Bret Baier interview with Jeb Bush aren't entirely different," he said "If you look at 'Morning Joe' interviewing Trump, I have a feeling Colbert will have a more substantive interview with Trump."

Being more substantive than Scarborough is a pretty low bar, but Stelter's right about blurred boundaries and a changing dynamic.

The question that remains is what kind of president the country is going to get with citizens laughing all the way to the voting booth.